William James Finds His Vocation

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THE YEAR IS 1890 and the place Cambridge, Massachusetts. On one of the streets leading northeast along the Harvard Yard a man in early middle age—he is, in fact, fortyeight years old, of slight build and medium height but vigorous motion—is walking with a pair of students, boy and girl, who have followed him out of his class in experimental psychology. His face is bearded and his eyes bright blue, and his features reflect the rapidity of his thought. He is William James, the scientist and philosopher. The two who plan to do advanced work in his laboratory are pursuing him with questions, and he is replying as to equals and with his customary fullness of illustration. The girl is short, pretty, and very noticing, and it occurs to her, apropos of the point being discussed, to remark on the large, imposing figure coming toward them. His long, white beard blowing, cane swinging, he seems in a world of his own, talking to himself or else to some invisible listener. He will mow them down if they do not get off the narrow sidewalk. “Whoever he is,” says the girl, “he’s the epitome of the absentminded professor.”

“What you really mean,” says James, “is that he is present-minded somewhere else.” As usual, the Jamesian observation inspires silent thought, and at the next corner he leaves them to turn left. He has remembered that young What’s-His-Name, an uncommonly original undergraduate, lives in one of the dormitories nearby and is reported sick. The young fellow probably hasn’t bothered about a doctor, and his ailment may be something that should not be neglected.

The resolve to pay this visit is not prompted solely by professional feeling—that of a teacher who is also an M. D. True, the atmosphere of Harvard College is still family-like; the place is as yet a largely local institution, not the Olympus among universities to which academic demigods aspire. But the fact is that, at any time or place, William James behaves by nature and habit like no one else. He differs even from people who are out of the ordinary by not remembering that he is one of them. Spontaneous, unaffected, his character is to act on any full-fledged emotion, provided others’ feelings are not hurt. His conscience will approve, and conventions will not stop him. So independent a personality did not please everybody. George Santayana recalled in his memoirs of Harvard that although James’s “position was established,” it had seemed at first “questionable and irregular.” James “had had to be swallowed. ” Once this was done, he was seen as “a marvellous human being”—tolerant, generous, tender to others’ difficulties, and yet strongly affirmative, combative even. His spirit seemed all-embracing, though too secular to be called saintly. There is a name for such a character: it is that of the Magnanimous Man.

THE YEAR 1890 marked the midpoint in James’s creative life. Since the late 1870s, when his long search for a vocation and a social role came to an end, his work had been abundant and intense. Now he had summed up in The Principles of Psychology , a two-volume work, the fruits of his research and reflection since his earliest concern with man’s mind. It is rare indeed that a textbook should be a masterpiece, but the word applies to James’s treatise and without any limitation as to kind: it is a literary masterpiece as well as a scientific one; it is philosophy as well as psychology; and for all its learning it reads like a novel—the parallel one thinks of is Moby Dick , which is also erudition, moral philosophy, and literature. Indeed, on the recent reissue of James’s Principles , the review in Psychology Today (April 1982) was a series of surprised and enthusiastic expletives: “Still vital after all these years”; “a masterpiece”; “literary genius”; “erudition in science and medicine.”

Such comments sufficiently suggest James’s continued importance to us today. He speaks in a voice we can understand and he addresses us on topics that still perplex us. For he is one of the makers of what may be called the formative period of this century—from 1890 to 1914—and his career was the elaboration of what he himself struggled with, intellectually and spiritually, in his youth. What is man? How does he form his views of reality? What is his place in the universe? What, in fact, is the universe—a grand rational unity or a chaotic diversity? What is the role of science in answering such questions and particularly those having to do with moral and religious issues? Is it possible that the modern worship of science destroys the will to live, turns civilization into a mindless machine, just like the universe that science pictures?

To know James’s proposed answers, one must read him, which is a pleasure, and re-create for oneself his vision, which is more difficult, for he makes war, though magnanimously, on our favorite superstitions, dragging out of us our unspoken assumptions. He helps us only if we reshape our minds.