Life’s Work


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August 26 marks the 100th anniversary of the death of William James, a giant in American intellectual history. James was a founder of pragmatic philosophy and of modern psychology. His two greatest works, The Principles of Psychology (1890) and The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902), are towering achievements, still relevant today in providing insights into why we behave as we do and why we believe what we do.

For years, I had little knowledge of William James and was instead an enthusiast of his younger brother Henry. It still mystifies me how two such extraordinary minds could have come from the same family. I first read Henry James in college and was soon a fan of his late work. I loved his complex style and subtle if wrong-headed heroines (with whom I identified).

Only much later did I come to admire William James. Although I still love Henry,  I can now sympathize with William’s impatience with his younger brother. “I read your Golden Bowl a month or more ago,” wrote William in a famous 1905 correspondence, “and it put me, as most of your recenter long stories have put me, in a very puzzled state of mind . . . why won’t you, just to please Brother, sit down and write a new book, with no twilight or mustiness in the plot, with great vigor and decisiveness in the action, no fencing in the dialogue, no psychological commentaries, and an absolute straightness in the style?”  In short, William asked Henry: “Why can’t you write more like me?”

The difference in style is, of course, linked to the different genres in which the brothers wrote, but it also reflects the different demands these writers made on the world around them. To read Henry James requires concentrated immersion; one must entirely surrender to his mental landscape. To read William James, one can remain separate, using his writing to supplement one’s own ideas. An example of what I mean can be found in his delightful chapter on habit in Talks to Teachers (amended from an earlier chapter in Principles of Psychology): “So far as we are thus mere bundles of habit, we are stereotyped creatures, imitators and copiers of our past selves. And since this, under any circumstances, is what we always tend to become, it follows first of all that the teacher’s prime concern should be to ingrain into the pupil that assortment of habits that shall be most useful to him through life.” From here, William goes on to explain how this can be done. As a teacher, I find this chapter to be both common-sensical and full of profound insight. I assign it to my freshmen each year, and whatever their backgrounds or beliefs, they are always receptive to it.

The life of William James is a case study in self-improvement and self-realization. He grew up in a wealthy and educated home. His father, Henry James, Sr., was intensely devoted to his five children, traveling with them throughout Europe in search of the best possible education. Henry Sr. was also friends with the greatest thinkers of the day, and the likes of Emerson and Thoreau were often on hand to converse with the children, especially the brilliant oldest child, William.

Yet despite such attention and devotion — or perhaps because of it — William suffered a harrowing mental breakdown in his early 20s. He felt he had been visited by the devil, an experience that would haunt him for the rest of his life. His suffering may have been sparked by too much opportunity and too many talents; one feels the stress of great expectations in the trajectory of his career. He began by studying art in Paris, then returned to America to study medicine at Harvard, then shifted his attention to science; from here he moved into philosophy, which he reexamined through the lens of his artistic and scientific background, forging a connection to the emerging field of psychology. He eventually married and had a family, and became a professor with adoring students and throngs of international admirers. But his earlier confused career path and his continued struggles with depression can be felt in the uniquely personal and empathetic quality of his writing. One of the salient characteristics of William James’ philosophy was an unwillingness to reduce life or cancel possibility. When taken to task for entertaining ideas about supernatural experience, he explained: “To upset the conclusion that all crows are black, there is no need to seek demonstration that no crows are black; it is sufficient to produce one white crow; a single one is sufficient.”

One hundred years after his death, William James still seems astonishingly modern. He is more accessible than his student, John Dewey, and more recognizable as a distinct individual voice than most philosophers writing today. Reading him, one feels the presence of a human mind in all its variety and contradiction– a mind both deep and generous that wants to impart what it believes to be true while respecting the beliefs of others. He is a model for our times. • 25 August 2010


Paula Marantz Cohen is Distinguished Professor of English and Dean of the Pennoni Honors College at Drexel University in Philadelphia. She is the author of 12 books, including six scholarly/nonfiction works on literature and film, and six novels, some spin-offs on Jane Austen and Shakespeare, and a thriller involving the James family and Jack the Ripper. She is a frequent contributor to The Wall Street Journal, The Times Literary Supplement, The Yale Review, and The American Scholar, a co-editor of jml: Journal of Modern Literature, and the host of the nationally distributed television interview show, The Civil Discourse (formerly The Drexel InterView). Her book, Talking Cure: An Essay on the Civilizing Power of Conversation will be published by Princeton UP in February.