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.

In pursuit of the metaphor a disturbing thought cannot be avoided: Is there not an indefinite variety of different blocks into which the river, once frozen, might be divided? Is there not then an indefinite variety of theories, all of which might serve as abstract models, but not as true representations, of reality? We choose the theories that prove to be the most useful in the design of dams on the river, and dams will create some little pools of secure knowledge on the margins of the river: this is pragmatism. Inside the pools we can safely calculate and control the movements of the water. But we should never confuse the little pools of causal knowledge with the free and flowing river of reality. That is the pathos of preferring comfort to wonder and security to surprise. But why was James so concerned about this metaphysical error, about the false realism embodied in the usual claims to systematized knowledge? There is an unmistakable note of urgency in his writing around this point during the last decade of his life.

The urgency, I believe, can be traced back to his famous early obsession with the problem of free will and to his deepseated dread of mechanistic explanations of human thought and human conduct. The characteristic of a machine is that it dully repeats itself in a programmed cycle of movements until it runs out of energy or until it breaks down. If the world is to be understood as a mechanical system, or as a set of mechanical systems, then surely “the first morning of creation wrote what the last dawn of reckoning shall read.” No real novelty anywhere was a thought intolerable to James; that we are taken in only by the appearance of novelty because of our ignorance of causes—this was the suggestion of the scientific materialists. Bergson was a “breath of the morning,” as James described him, because he had changed the terms in which the problem of free will versus causation had hitherto been discussed; only Charles Sanders Peirce had at some points anticipated him. Bergson claimed—we can scarcely say argued—that the problem of free will arose from a mistake about the nature of time, more specifically, from a failure to distinguish the lapse of time as a phenomenon of inner experience, la durée réelle or le devenir réel, and the measured time, or clock time, that we usefully invent in order to map and to control the events that we have identified, for our convenience, as distinct events: the frozen blocks from the river.

The image of a map has a place here, because Bergson claimed that time measured in discrete units is time represented, or schematized, in a spatial model, and the spatial model eliminates the two essential features of experienced time, which are its continuous flow and its felt direction. The continuous flow, as of the River Liffey, is indivisible into discrete units, which are entia rationis only, convenient, but still unreal, suppositions. Secondly, for spatialized time, we have to add an arrow of direction from past to future, and this is the arrow of causal explanation, which represents the future as always the captive of the past and in chains.

Suppose then that, following Bergson and James, the entire discussion is inverted as we return to l’expérience vécu, to real time, to the never ceasing emergence of the future from the past, with no ready-made and felt discontinuities, no frozen blocks, as we drift past the man-made measuring posts on the banks of the river. Then James can ask, being a good empiricist, where the idea of causation comes from and what a cause is when originally encountered as a pervasive element in our lives. The answer is evident: it comes from our consciousness, more exactly from our continuing consciousness, of one state of mind continuously leading into another. More exactly still, it comes from those phases of consciousness in which we are engaged in some mental activity, directing our thoughts in one direction rather than another: thoughts not drifting along their own paths, as in reverie, but pushed and jerked forward by the thinker to some purpose. Hume pays no attention to the continuities of consciousness in his account of the mind. As James wrote, “He makes events rattle against their neighbors as drily as if they were dice in a box.” Flows and rivers were not important to him. He sees only flashes of light and of color, salient shapes and surfaces: these are his metaphors for reality, which form for him the bedrock, “the really real” in James’s phrase.

From The Principles of Psychology onward James’s thought had circled around his inner experience of time in willing, in straining toward, an outcome or upshot; in following steps to a conclusion; in being led by the evidence step by step to a belief; in one emotion leading directly into another in the continuous flow of feeling, in the continuous alternations of feeling in ambivalence, of repugnance leading into attraction, of exultation leading into despair. This introspective type or style of philosophical thinking, which follows le sens in time, is more continuously cultivated in French thought than in Anglo-American philosophy. James’s contact with the French tradition was through Renouvier, but before him Maine de Biran had over many years represented “le moi actif,” the directed transitions of consciousness, against the Idéologues and against Helvétius who, like Hume, had failed to associate the sense of personal identity and the continuity of the self with the exercise of the will and with direct knowledge of its causal efficacy.

In the later writings collected in the Library of America volume James can confidently conclude that

real effectual causation as an ultimate nature, as a “category,” if you like, of reality, is just what we feel it to be, just that kind of conjunction which our own activity-series reveal. We have the whole butt and being of it in our hands.

There is no reason to think of causes and effects as always involving lawlike regularities and eternal repetitions, as with the motions of heavenly bodies, and no reason to think that activity excludes novelty from the real world. Our consciousness of mental activity, of the hope or vision that guides our action into the future, is an instance of bringing about a novelty in the world, at least when the outcome is a discovery or an invention. The artist pushing his pencil across the paper may hesitate before the unpredicted turn in his drawing, but he cannot, being faithful to his experience, represent the future segments of the line to be drawn as determined by the past segments already drawn, any more than he can represent the past segments of the line as determined by the intended future. When we transfer our experience of activity to external things, observed to be regularly connected, and conclude that a physical change in one object is the outcome produced by the activity of another object, we obviously cannot have any direct sense of this, as it were from the inside; we can only learn about physical efficacies by experiment.

James and Bergson both knew that to write about l’expérience vécu, the inner life of consciousness, as the true path to reality for a philosopher was to be committed to writing philosophy in metaphors rather than arguing from clearly defined concepts. They were both masters of visual imagery and of persuasive metaphors, and James at least believed that Hume and Kant were no less governed, even obsessed, in their thought by a picture of the mind’s relation to external things, which remained no less pictorial when probed, and which betrayed itself in dominant images and metaphors. He never believed in the crushing power of pure argument to settle a central issue in philosophy, as ideally might happen in a court of law. Russell later expressed the same doubt about the value of argument in his History of Western Philosophy, and Wittgenstein repeatedly wrote of philosophical theories having their origins in an obsession with a particular picture of the relation of language to reality.

James went further still. He believed that emotion played an unacknowledged part in the proud intellectual constructions that are called metaphysical monism or pluralism, and that “intellectualism,” one of his terms of abuse, and a craving for philosophical abstractions clothed emotional needs and particular temperaments. For example, there is the monist’s need for security and for order and his need to survey in a single sweep the proper and intelligible arrangement of all the knives and forks, pots and pans in the kitchen, as opposed to James’s deeply felt need, as a pluralist, for novelty, surprise, movement; for proliferation and change; and for what James called “all the dirt of the world.” Monists and pluralists differ for much the same reasons as Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau did in The Odd Couple, a film that is very Jamesian in its insights. James liked the glitter and shot-silk quality of Bergson’s writing, and, unlike many of “the dusty-minded professors,” he was not suspicious of Bergson’s intellectual conjuring of metaphysical rabbits out of imagined hats. He was marvelously free from Protestant literalness, and in a late letter to his father he attributed this freedom to his father’s heterodoxies and solitary thinking.

James described himself as “mathematically and logically blind,” and he was not much studied and used by academic philosophers in the period from the 1930s to the 1970s when logic and the philosophy of language were dominant. But his concept of “the stream of consciousness,” and the highly original, tentative, and very vivid chapter on “The Self” in The Principles of Psychology, have never disappeared from view, because of James’s ability to catch the sounds of movement in his own consciousness and to report them. Apart from Peirce he was the only empiricist who always pictured himself as fully living in the world and as impulsively pushing his uncertain way forward, and he did not, like Russell, see himself as observing the world from a philosophic height and then acting on the basis of observation and valid argument. His recurrent bouts of depression took the form of feeling that he could no longer move forward and that he had come to a dead stop. In 1872 he wrote to Henry (in a letter quoted in the Library of America volume):

The appointment to teach physiology is a perfect God-send to me just now,…a dealing with men instead of my own mind, and a diversion from those introspective studies which had bred a sort of philosophical hypochondria in me of late.

I think many people would not admire, and would not trust, the sanity of someone who had never been in the least threatened with an unbalanced mind, if only because it would then become difficult to distinguish such sanity as that from mere stupidity. James’s mental health, sometimes perhaps too forcefully and artificially expressed, was a famous victory over several mental breakdowns, and he could bring back news from the other side of the border, particularly of the ego weakening and melting and then with great effort restoring itself. He belonged to the generation that, both in America and in England, went in for “mind-cures” in place of theosophy, or Oriental therapies in place of nature cures, to the period portrayed in Henry James’s The Bostonians. In 1893 he went to a “mind-curer” for relief from melancholia. Describing the “sick soul” in The Varieties, he attributes to a “French correspondent” a description of a horrifying hallucination, which he later admitted to be his own “during an acute neurasthenic attack with phobia.” The Varieties now recalls its period in its mood of curiosity about exceptional states of mind, which was a conscious reaction against previous intolerance of such states; so was Havelock Ellis’s The Psychology of Sex later in the same period of experiment and enlightenment as The Varieties.

Gerald Myers’s William James: His Life and Thought uses the methods of analytical philosophy to give a thorough and critical account of James’s philosophy under such chapter headings as “Thought, “Knowledge, “Self,” “Memory.” In a short chapter on “Life and Career” he argues, as I consider, convincingly, that Leon Edel, in his biography of Henry James, was wrong to see a “long-buried struggle for power” between Henry and William, a Jacob and Esau relationship.* The biblical emphasis seems too heavy and out of place. In his useful chronology in the Library of America volume Bruce Kuklick quotes William, rejecting Henry’s company when they were both boys, as saying: “I play with boys who curse and swear.” Evidently two brothers who think very powerfully have to protect their thought from each other, as, for example, James and Stanislaus Joyce did, and the need is doubled if both are geniuses. Both William and Henry had their great achievements, and they both related their achievements, as constituting their success, to the greatest possible proliferation of life and to a more realistic sense of its conflicts. Henry was also acutely aware of “the dirt of the world,” particularly of the effects of money both in the creation and the destruction of taste and honor. William is quoted in the chronology of Bruce Kuklick’s volume, under the year 1903, as writing to a friend, in one of his supreme moments of sanity, free from all Nietzschean overtones:

I am convinced that the desire to formulate truths is a virulent disease. It has contracted an alliance lately in me with a feverish personal ambition, which I never had before, and which I recognize as an unholy thing in such a connexion. I actually dread to die until I have settled the Universe’s hash in one more book…! Childish idiot—as if formulas about the Universe could ruffle its majesty, and as if the common sense world and its duties were not eternally the really real!

If all European philosophers, after the death of Kant, had been made to sign their names to this declaration, before they were allowed to lecture, the world would probably have been, on the whole and in most respects, a better place than it is.

This Issue

April 14, 1988