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William James Finds His Vocation
One of America s truly great men—scientist, philosopher, and literary genius—forged his character in the throes of adversity
February/march 1983 | Volume 34, Issue 2
His medical training, James thought, had taught him only one thing—how society molds and directs an apparently independent and scientific profession. He nevertheless hoped to use his technical knowledge to get rid of his crippling back pains and general anxiety. For James did not take to being an invalid. He hated the “tedious egotism” of sickness and solitude, and his natural bent was toward activity—and not simply the normal kind, but exuberant activity. For some years, too, he had struggled with strong sexual impulses, which in his social and ethical view must lead to marriage, a step he could not take if he were to continue ailing and morbid. He experimented with drugs, exercise, and rest, including less study. From his New Year’s Day reflection for 1870, the measure of this reduced effort appears dubious: if during the year he finished reading his father’s works in thirteen volumes, plus Schopenhauer, Fechner, Fichte, Spencer’s biology, and half a dozen lesser lights, he thought he would have done enough.
Yet there was a point to all this philosophizing, as the event proved. He suspected that regaining health might have some connection with the problem of free will which he had been pondering and arguing with friends. The scientific dogma of the day was mechanistic materialism—the great push-pull system of the physical universe by which every event was deemed to be completely determined in an endless chain of previous events, with “not a wiggle of our will” taking part. Soon the great Huxley, “Darwin’s Watchdog,” was to assert that man was an automaton. His consciousness of choosing, of having a purpose, of thinking before acting, was an illusion, an “epiphenomenon,” so to say—the flame of burning brandy on the plum pudding; it plays lightly over the lump beneath but has no control over it.
To this day, this is the scheme of things that is taken for granted by the majority of unreflective minds—by thousands of scientists, journalists, and their docile listeners. It seems to fit what we see, feel, and (especially) hear. For William James this issue of material causation was urgent and inescapable: if reason meant anything, the automaton theory was wrong; and if it meant nothing, then an “effort to get well” was also a meaningless phrase. Yet despising self-pity and sensing within him energies that were being mysteriously dammed up, James considered it a duty to save himself and thus release them. Since he no longer had the help of traditional religion—“seeing into the purposes of God”—he could only cling to “the thought of my having a will and of my belonging to the brotherhood of men.” With these two convictions he might overcome the melancholia and the “evil of restlessness” that he hid so carefully.
For James, history was important: every thought and act “owes its complexion to the acts of your dead and living brothers.”
The reality of the will he found confirmed by an argument in the works of the French philosopher Renouvier, whom James had discovered a couple of years before: to will was to sustain a particular thought when one had other thoughts equally sustainable. In short, to choose a goal and hold on to it by attending. As for the significance of mankind—as against the contention of current science that all but matter is illusion—James found it demonstrated by the evidence of history: every thought and act “owes its complexion to the acts of your dead and living brothers. ” The importance of history for James grew with his expanding thought.
In a letter to a friend, James wrote: “Man is the best we know; and your loathing for what you probably call the vulgarity of human life is furnished by your manhood; your ideal is made up of traits suggested by past men’s words and actions.” In other words, the quality of life was determined not by matter but by man. It followed that the justification of life was “by hook or by crook, to make my nick , however small a one, in the raw stuff the race has got to shape, and so assert my reality.”
James’s starting point and his philosophical method would in our century class him as an existentialist thinker: that is, one who philosophizes from the need to survive intellectually and emotionally in a universe that the collapse of traditional religion and the tyranny of science have laid waste. James had defined the task as early as his twenty-third year, in a letter to his father: “Men’s activities are occupied in two ways—in grappling with external circumstances, and in striving to set things at one in their own topsy-turvy mind.” And three years later, by the time of the impending crisis, he knew the full extent of mankind’s dependence on itself: “ Everything we know and are is through men. We have no revelation but through men.”