William James
William James; drawing by David Levine

William James foresaw all aspects of our Iraq war more than a hundred years before it began:

The transformation of native friendliness to execration; the demoralization of our army, from the war office down—forgery decorated, torture whitewashed, massacre condoned; the creation of a chronic anarchy…the deliberate reinflaming on our part of ancient tribal animosities…. These things, I say, or things like them, were… clearly foretold.

He was writing in 1903 about the American invasion of the Philippines. James, a philosopher who had been a medical doctor, used his scientific knowledge on a political matter:

In the physiologies which I studied when I was young, the function of incorporating foreign bodies into one’s organism was divided into four stages—prehension, deglutition, digestion and assimilation. We prehended our prey, or took it into our mouth, when President McKinley posted his annexation edict, and insalivated with pious phrases the alternative he offered to our late allies of instant obedience or death.

The morsel thus lubricated, deglutition went on slowly during those three years and more when our army was slaughtering and burning, and famine, fire, disease and depopulation were the new allies we invoked. But if the swallowing took three years, how long ought the process of digestion, that teaching of the Filipinos to be “fit” for rule, that solution of recalcitrant lumps into a smooth “chyle,” with which our civil commission is charged—how long ought that to take? It will take a decade, at least. As for assimilation, that is altogether an affair of the day after tomorrow.1

When in 1896 Theodore Roosevelt, then a commissioner of police in New York, questioned the patriotism of anyone who criticized President Cleveland’s belligerent policy in Venezuela, James deftly skewered this early form of Cheneyism. “May I express a hope,” he wrote in a public letter,

that in this university…we shall be patriotic enough not to remain passive while the destinies of our country are being settled by surprise.

James was prescient on many things. Randolph Bourne said that “war is the health of the state,” but James said it first. George Orwell said that in the new state peace will mean war, but James said it earlier. Clifford Geertz would make “thick description” famous, but James anticipated him by many years. In the twentieth century, “stream of consciousness” would be used by critics around the work of James Joyce and Virginia Woolf, but James invented the term in 1884.2

Who was this man who was out ahead of so many others? Well, he was behind or beside or above them, too. He was a weird son of an even weirder father, Henry James Senior. The father inherited so much money that he did not need to do anything to make a living, so he spent his time chasing spiritual epiphanies, a quest he handed down to his bewildered children. Henry Senior’s father owned much of northern New York state, and underwrote Union College when it was on the verge of bankruptcy. Henry Senior went to Union, hated it, and ordered his children not to attend any college (none did). Instead, he sent them around the world to odd schools in many countries, where they spoke many languages, wondering why. In Geneva, London, Paris, Boulogne, and Bonn they picked up this and that in the way of disconnected knowledge, and learned to protect each other against a world where they never quite fit in. There were five children in this globetrotting schoolroom—William, Henry, Wilkinson, Robertson, and Alice. William’s latest biographer, Robert Richardson, describes the itinerant crew with admirable economy:

Life among the Jameses was a perpetual tussle for control. Partly because there was so much unconventionality and gleeful disorder in the family, control was a strategy and a goal for most of the members. Unable ever to control himself for long, the father tried to control the family. His hectic moving them about is only the most obvious of his many controlling behaviors. His wife, Mary, exercised control by being the opposite of her husband, the calm and predictable center, the one who kept track of money and correspondence and who presided over family relations. Alice learned how to use her poor health to make and dominate a space for herself, creating conditions of exclusive and extensive personal needs.

William had a prolonged and disorderly youth, as had his father, and, like his sister, William found ways to use his neurasthenia and precarious health to get his way. Henry Junior became famous for his control over his language, his point of view, his life, and his papers. Bob cultivated misfortune and aggressive resentment as ways of asserting an identity and making a place for himself. Wilky, whose inability to handle money was even worse than his father’s, was perhaps the one James offspring who never developed a successful way of controlling others.

Because they had such a crackpot father, the children—especially the elder two, “Willy” and “Harry”—remained vulnerable to quacks all their lives. The father flitted from Calvinism to Transcendentalism to Swedenborgianism to Fourierism to Free Love, writing “unwanted and unread” books about them all. As a boy, he had lost a leg in a fire, and he hobbled about on a wooden substitute with a compensatory swagger, telling the world what it should believe (today, as opposed to what he told it to believe yesterday).


His children were able, in time, to mock (mainly kindly) this Dickensian character, but not to break free of his influence. They had lived too long under the Niagara Falls of his enthusiasms. Henry, the novelist, was drawn to séances, ghosts, electrical shock treatment, and health fads. He devoted himself to “Fletcherizing,” the system that Horace Fletcher called Menticulture, which involved among other things masticating one’s food thirty-two times per swallow. When Henry developed health problems later on, he attributed them to this health cure. Henry Adams’s wife Marian (“Clover”) probably had Henry’s well-known Fletcherism in mind when she said that the trouble with his literary style was that “he chaws more than he bites off.”3

William was even more adventurous than Henry in his experiments upon himself and his exploration of mediums and gurus. He added electrical shocks, injection with serums from bull or goat testicles, hypnotism, anaesthetic trance, mind cure, and consumption of various mood-altering chemicals (including mescal, chloral hydrate, amyl nitrate, veronal, and chloroform4 ). James would have felt quite at home in the psychedelic Sixties. He regularly attended séances, and became a strong supporter of and officeholder in the Society for Psychical Research. He sat outside the room of a psychic-researcher friend who was dying, hoping the friend would communicate something “from the other side.” He was a great fan of the borderline kook Gustav Fechner, who thought the earth is divine and should be prayed to, and the outright crank Benjamin Blood, who promoted anaesthetic trances and held that each letter of the alphabet has its own personality.

How did this eccentric figure become one of the major American thinkers of his time? He did it by his skill in navigating the tricky middle ground between the two poles that attracted him—science on the one hand and mysticism on the other. His studies of human consciousness had aspects of both poles. His father wanted “Willy” to become a medical doctor, but James avoided that fate for a while by studying with William Morris Hunt to be a painter. He soon gave that up to pursue scientific studies. His father’s ban on colleges did not apply to the Lawrence Scientific School, which was at that time very loosely connected with Harvard. James went there to study chemistry with Charles W. Eliot (the future president of Harvard) and anatomy with Jeffries Wyman. In 1864 he entered the Boston medical school shakily associated with Harvard (the school did not require a college degree). James, like Henry Adams and many others, came under the spell of the charming Swiss ichthyologist Louis Agassiz and went as his assistant to catalog the rare fish of Brazil. Though Agassiz was a determined foe of Darwin, James was and remained a convinced Darwinian.

The medical school in Boston was undemanding, so James went back to his peripatetic schooling in Europe, taking courses here and there in physiology, neurology, and the nascent science of psychology. He returned to America to take the MD (his only earned college degree), but never practiced as a physician. In 1872, when James was thirty, his old chemistry teacher Charles Eliot, now Harvard’s president, offered him a job teaching physiology and anatomy. Over time James shifted his teaching from physiology to psychology, and finally to philosophy. His first book, The Principles of Psychology (1890), established his sphere of thought, the concrete observation of consciousness, its complexity, not to say messiness, and the fringes of subliminal or unconscious awareness around it. He was abreast of Freud’s views, but he went at similar problems in a nontherapeutic and speculative way.

James argued that we do not think in concepts, which are static and abstracted from reality. Consciousness is always in motion. James was impressed by Henri Bergson’s fluid view of the mind. We think “on the run” and have many sources of experiential knowledge, including hunches, analogy, metaphor, music, poetry, and prayer. “Immediate sensible life” presents us with “a big blooming buzzing confusion.”

My present field of consciousness is a centre surrounded by a fringe that shades insensibly into a subconscious more. I use three separate terms here to describe this fact; but I might as well use three hundred, for the fact is all shades and no boundaries. Which part of it properly is in my consciousness, which out? If I name what is out, it already has come in. The centre works in one way while the margins work in another, and presently overpower the centre and are central themselves.

Making sense of this confusion depends less on logic, which James called drawing “brain diagrams,” than on purpose, will, and habit. Though James seems not to have known John Henry Newman’s Grammar of Assent, he approximates at times the distinction Newman drew between “notional assent” and “real assent.”5 James asks his audience to


discriminate “theoretic” or scientific knowledge from the deeper “speculative” knowledge aspired to by most philosophers, and concede that theoretic knowledge, which is knowledge about things, as distinguished from living or sympathetic acquaintance with them, touches only the outer surface of reality.

Or, as Chesterton once said, “a man may well be less convinced of a philosophy from four books, than from one book, one battle, one landscape, and one old friend.”6

James disturbed some philosophers by arguing not in syllogisms but in metaphors. Explaining the nature of truth, he wrote:

If I am lost in the woods and starved, and find what looks like a cow-path, it is of the utmost importance that I should think of a human habitation at the end of it, for if I do so and follow it, I save myself. The true thought is useful here because the house which is its object is useful…. True is the name for whatever idea starts the verification-process, useful is the name for its completed function in experience.

Since experience is “all shot through with regularities,” we build up a store of lived correspondences. “One bit of it can warn us to get ready for another bit.” James’s thinking runs parallel with the pragmatism of John Dewey (without being entirely identical with it):

Such is the large loose way in which the pragmatist interprets the word agreement [with reality]. He treats it altogether practically. He lets it cover any process of conduction from a present idea to a future terminus, provided only it run prosperously.7

James subjected religion to the pragmatic test in his famous Gifford Lectures given in Edinburgh in 1901– 1902, published as The Varieties of Religious Experience. He assembled a vast body of reported religious experiences—experiences of conversion, of prayer, of mysticism, of philosophers’ faith, of ecstasy, of asceticism, of sanctity, of “the dark night of the soul”—and asked, on the basis of them all: Does religion work? He concluded that it does. The pragmatic test is passed if religion opens one to broader insights, larger generosity and self-sacrifice, greater usefulness to oneself and others, new possibilities in life. Humility raises one’s human potential by lowering one’s pretensions. He sees what Chesterton saw in Francis of Assisi. Such humility was

so far analogous to the story of the man making a tunnel through the earth that it did mean a man going down and down until at some mysterious moment he begins to go up and up.8

That resembles the conversion experience James described, and which “Bill W.,” the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, appropriated from James’s lectures as a model for the alcoholic’s recovery, the self-surrender to a higher power. One crude but striking proof that religion works is the success of the twelve-step program originally developed by AA.

One can rightly be suspicious of arguments for faith based on “success.” This makes religion resemble the mind cures James experimented with. But James’s book provides a timely corrective for the impression of religion so often bruited about these days—that it is the source of the world’s troubles. When fundamentalist fanaticisms are rending society, we find it easy to remember the devastating line of Lucretius:

Tantum religio potuit suadere malorum.
(How suasive is religion to our bane.)9

Religion is a dangerous thing—as is love, or sex, or the family. One could say that James “cooked the books” in largely neglecting the evil effects of religion when used as an instrument of power or repression. But we need little reminding of that sad fact at the moment. It is a useful corrective to see that there are varieties of religious experience, and James heaps up seemingly endless examples of the benign varieties.

As for James’s own religious views, they were shifting and dynamic, like all his thought, verging on an Emersonian nature mysticism. His intense correspondence with believers, especially with the Christian Henry Rankin, renounced any belief in sectarian churches but concluded that “I shall probably come out not incongruously with your specifications.” His belief in a higher power went along with his attunement to the numinous quality of one’s own consciousness. He said of the conversion experience that so fascinated him:

I am quite willing to believe that a new truth may be supernaturally revealed to a subject when he really asks. But I am sure that in many cases of conversion it is less a new truth than a new power gained over life by a truth always known.

Robert Richardson shows in his new life of James the same sympathy with his subject that he brought to the biography of Emerson.10 That does not mean he is blind to the shortcomings of either man. James was volatile, easily bored, moody, subject to depression and insomnia. In his quest for new sensations he sometimes neglected his wife and children. He could be rude and insulting, as when he not only turned down an invitation to join the American Philosophical Society but gratuitously insulted it and its members. He was easily smitten by smart and pretty young women; and though he seems not to have had sex with any of them, his serial flirtations were deeply hurtful to his wife.

But in general James was open and likable. He had a profound effect on his students, as many of them testified—including W.E.B. Dubois, George Santayana, Bernard Berenson, and Gertrude Stein (when she was studying at Radcliffe). He was a valued colleague at Harvard, where he performed many services for the university beyond his teaching. There was an amicable and fruitful inter-play of minds in the philosophy department, where the idealist philosopher Josiah Royce upheld the very conceptualism James devoted his life to combating.

Richardson is nuanced and helpful on every aspect of James’s thought—on the influences that affected him (especially from Bergson and Emerson, the latter a hero and friend of James’s father), and on the people he influenced himself, primarily other pragmatists like Dewey, but also the early phenomenologists and existentialists. Alfred North Whitehead called James one of “the four great thinkers whose services to civilized thought rest largely upon their achievements in philosophical assemblage.”

Richardson is also a shrewd reader of the James family’s relationships. That of William with his father was troubled but stimulating. Alice, the only sister, seems to have fallen in love with William, but withdrew to England with a woman companion, where Henry was solicitous of her precarious health and nerves. The main tie was between the two elder brothers, who were quite different in their mode of living and literary style. William said of Henry’s asymptotic late style:

You know how opposed your whole “third manner” of execution is to the literary ideals which animate my crude and Orson-like breast, mine being to say a thing in one sentence as straight and explicit as it can be made, and then to drop it forever; yours being to avoid naming it straight, but by dint of breathing and sighing all round and round it, to arouse in the reader who may have had a similar perception already (Heaven help him if he hasn’t!) the illusion of a solid object, made (like the “ghost” at the Polytechnic) wholly out of impalpable materials, air, and the prismatic interferences of light, ingeniously focused by mirrors upon empty space.

They could criticize each other candidly without endangering the deep affection they felt and the respect each had for the other’s talent. Henry, who deeply admired William’s wife Alice, said that William was not thoughtful enough concerning her. But each could always rely on the other, and they rallied to the support of their less capable and successful siblings. Richardson movingly ends his book with Henry’s expression of pain at William’s death:

I sit heavily stricken and in darkness—for from far aback in dimmest childhood he had been my ideal Elder Brother; and I still, through all the years, saw in him, even as a small timorous boy yet, my protector, my backer, my authority and my pride. His extinction changes the face of life for me—besides the mere missing of his inexhaustible company and personality, originality, the whole unspeakably vivid and beautiful presence of him.

This Issue

July 19, 2007