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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
“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.
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.
But all this is to anticipate. It was thanks to physical mischance suffered at the right time by a pair of brothers that this country can now boast of the achievements of two of her greatest sons. William and Henry James had turned twenty by the height of the Civil War and in the normal course would no doubt have enlisted on the Union side like their two brothers, their cousins, and their friends. But Henry was disabled after an injury to his back and William was prey to a recurrent nervous ailment. The younger brothers, Wilky and Bob, who came back shattered from Fort Wagner and other places, serve as a “control” in this small test of the effect of war on the culture of nations.
Such accidents of chronology are seldom made enough of. Likewise, the main facts of William’s upbringing are given in all the books, but what they suggest has not been sufficiently insisted on. To say that as a child William was moved from school to school too often for good results conveys no special image, nor does it define the sort of mind that emerged from his globe-trotting and broken schooling. There have been, after all, many hotel-bred children of no more than ordinary capacity. But genius, especially genius in which intellect is fused with imagination, cannot be well understood without recapturing the quality of its earliest experience. For experience is an instinct of life, as Wilde said, and what matters is the way life is “taken” by the experiencer. We know St. Augustine, Rousseau, and Berlioz as we do not know Aristotle, St. Thomas, and Bacon, because the first three wrote autobiographies whose opening chapters give us a direct view of the “taking” in childhood. To know William James, we go to his early letters and find there not only the quality of his power to experience but also the germs of almost all his original ideas.
Young James’s nervous instability or neurasthenia, as it was then called, was no temporary trouble of late adolescence. It was a deep-rooted depression which held up his choice of career till his mid-twenties, which he overcame in part by an heroic effort of will, and which periodically returned, though less crippling, throughout his life.
Whatever the cause, it cannot have been lack of parental love. The Jameses were an uncommonly united and affectionate family. As the letters show, every member of it took enormous pleasure in the person and the company of the others. The father, Henry James, Sr., was a genial, unworldly man with a humorous eye and an extraordinary way with words. He also had a cork leg, the consequence of an accident in boyhood. Having independent means, he divided his time between domesticity and writing works of theology and social reform. He had a wide circle of friends among intellectuals, in particular Ralph Waldo Emerson. But his family was his paradise.
This father was what we should call a permissive parent in an age when fathers knew their rights. Like a man of the twentieth century, he wanted not to repeat the mistakes his father had made in rearing him; so he indulged his children with a sublime confidence that their characters were indestructible. Regular schooling was fitful, the slackness of tutors was tolerated, freedom of speech and movement at home and outside was pushed to the limit, and extravagant, paradoxical opinions were bandied about to stimulate thought. The system—or absence of system—would either ruin or make strong original minds. Judging by William, Henry, and their sister, Alice, it succeeded, though at a cost.
Willy, the eldest, was an active, talkative, willful little boy, whose lust for exploring, trying out, and uttering his discoveries soon shattered the household calm that his studious father had once enjoyed, even though his restlessness was also an obsessive trait. The Jameses were originally from New York and soon from everywhere. The grandfather (the first William), who had come from Ireland “to see a revolutionary battlefield,” settled in Albany in 1789. He became one of the builders of that city, a promoter of the Erie Canal, and the possessor not only of wealth but of cultivation. His son, Henry, Sr., born in Albany in 1811 and a graduate of the new Union College in Schenectady, was in New York with his wife when his first son was born, at the old Astor House, on January 11, 1842.
When Willy was about a year and a half, the paternal wanderlust asserted itself and the family was whisked off to Europe—Paris, England, Paris again—for a visit that lasted two-and-a-half years. Abroad, Henry, Sr., met Carlyle, Tennyson, Lewes, Mill, Thackeray, and others, and he also experienced a severe mental crisis—almost a total breakdown—that resisted medical treatment. The chance discovery of Swedenborg’s works began to effect a cure and also redirected his thought and writings. After some two years he regained his composure permanently, but for those months the tension and anxiety of both parents doubtless affected the two uncommonly perceptive boys. Back in this country, the family lived first in Albany; then, for an unexampled stretch of seven years, in New York, on West Fourteenth Street, where Alice was born in 1848.
James’s nervous instability was a deep-rooted depression that held up his choice of career till his mid-twenties.
But the cosmopolitan ideal still ruled the father’s mind, and Willy was sent for his first schooling to a French institution in New York where he learned nothing but the art of dodging the books hurled by perpetually angry masters. Shifted after a while to another school, he enjoyed being taught to draw. His brother Henry remembered Willy on Fourteenth Street “drawing and drawing, always drawing, not as with a plodding patience … but easily, freely, and, as who should say, infallibly.” Both had begun to “write”—that is to say, compose original “works”—spurred no doubt by the abundant conversation of interesting visitors in the parlor and of the family at table, where a free-for-all was encouraged among their own and “father’s ideas.” A dinner guest has recorded a somewhat later scene of the children’s vehement disputes at mealtimes drowning out the voice of the father-moderator and accompanied by alarming gesticulations, knife or fork in hand. Mrs. James would reassure the visitor: “Don’t be disturbed; they won’t stab each other. This is usual when the boys come home.”
By June 1855 Europe beckoned again, and the family trooped over. By then it included the last two children, Garth Wilkinson (Wilky) and Robertson (Bob), equally cherished and appreciated by the rest, and not less mentally alert, but soon to be overtaken by ill chance before their time. From this trip forward—with Willy now in his teens—the story of the Jameses, and especially of the oldest boy, is an account of perpetual motion. It has to be summarized quickly, if only to avoid protracted dizziness: Geneva, Paris, London; tutors and governesses. A year at Boulogne-sur-Mer (1857–58) where Willy, at the excellent lycée , earned praise for work in science and bought a microscope. Back in the States (for no more than a year), a new setting and new friends, at Newport, Rhode Island. It was there that the beautiful child cousin Minny Temple became for William and Henry a beloved emblem of the beauty of life and, by her early death, the very figure of tragedy.
At Newport the leading American painter William Morris Hunt had his studio, in which a young man of French origin, John La Farge, was a pupil with a future. From him William took fire and decided he too must be a painter. There ensued a disagreement between Willy and his father that must be unique in the annals of fathers and sons quarreling over careers. The father’s strenuous opposition to Willy’s desire was not because being an artist was “unpractical”—unlikely to bring in the livelihood that was now needed, owing to family losses and the prospective division of the estate among five children; nor was it because the father doubted his son’s talent and chances of success. What he feared was that the profession of artist would not bring Willy the intellectual and spiritual satisfactions his son craved and deserved. Henry, Sr., as an advanced thinker, did believe that “the artist or producer is the only regenerate image of God in nature,” but the artist’s career was still questionable.
By 1859, the time of Darwin’s Origin of Species , of Wagner’s Tristan , and of the birth of Freud, Willy still needed some general education. Hence Europe again—Geneva, this time—where he entered the university and distinguished himself in anatomy (including dissection), a discipline in which his good draftsmanship served him well. Then he traveled to Germany for the summer, to learn the language. Willy “soaked it up” while living with a family in Bonn. (Geneva had afforded him a reading knowledge of Italian, in addition to perfecting his French.) But the urge to paint still throbbed inside him, and his arguments virtually forced a return to Newport, where, in 1860, he joined Hunt and La Farge “as an apprentice.”
When young James decided to give up painting, he wrote: “Nothing is more contemptible than a mediocre artist.”
At the same time, it will not do to forget that William never lost touch with his native land. Its ways and speech were deep in him, fused with those that came from the whole civilization to which he had been bred. I mean by this not only that his home situation had made ideas as concrete as tables and chairs; I mean also that even lacking the valuable lesson of American public school life as it was then, James picked up the true spirit of democracy in the unsupervised rambles in downtown New York that his father encouraged.
The zest for being in the rough and tumble of life and not just a moralizing spectator was a temperamental trait, an element of the young boy’s energy and love of action. It may be read into the episode of his brother Henry’s wanting to share in some boyish expedition. As the older and less shy, Willy had naturally fallen into the role of rhodel and guardian, and he turned down the request with the final rebuff: “ I play with boys who curse and swear.” Later on, William’s impatience with conventional goodness and propriety affords the rare spectacle of a philosopher who was gifted, Lincoln-like, with the common touch. Santayana is again a good witness, for he never really liked or understood James and, like a good critic, objected to what others also find present but not objectionable: “He was so extremely natural that there was no knowing what his nature was, or what to expect next; … I found no foothold, I was soon fatigued.”
James’s childhood hide-and-seek with schoolmasters here and abroad had certainly developed a critical judgment that gave short shrift to received opinion and professional routines. When William in his twenty-fifth year encountered German academic ways in philosophy and science, he wrote home: “You never saw such a mania for going deep into the bowels of truth, with such an absolute lack of intuition and perception of the skin thereof.” The “skin” is the plain concrete feel of things, and James gives to the Germans’ uniformly abstract and verbal ways of explaining things a revealing series of epithets: “disgusting and disheartening … corrupt and immodest.”
Father Henry’s transatlantic shuttle had provoked or facilitated or reinforced all these attitudes. If they led in some fashion to the coming breakdown of the young mind called upon to organize and assess them, they were at the same time the best preparation for a genius who was not, after all, going to be another Delacroix, William’s favorite painter in Paris. When the elder James’s sons were little, they were sometimes embarrassed at being asked what their father did. He, when consulted for the right answer, gave one that did not help at all: “Say I’m a philosopher, say I’m a seeker for truth, say I’m a lover of my kind, say I’m an author of books, if you like; or best of all, just say I’m a Student. ” When William gave up painting, he was already halfway to a career that could be described in identical terms.
The second part of James’s odyssey occupied less than a decade, from 1861 to 1869, and though full of drama and adventure, it set off almost at once on the right course. Painting with Hunt took up just one year; giving it up expressed the pupil’s sound judgment that talent is not enough: “Nothing is more contemptible than a mediocre artist.” William turned to his other interests and abilities; he enrolled in the Lawrence Scientific School of Harvard and, after three years there, entered the Medical School in 1864. Then came a providential interruption: the famous naturalist Louis Agassiz, subsidized by a Boston patron and the Emperor of Brazil, outfitted an expedition to study the fauna of the Amazon. By invitation William joined as one of the seven volunteer aides making up the exploring party of seventeen. We get a glimpse of him from a letter Mrs. Agassiz wrote to her younger children in Cambridge: “He is a delightful traveling companion. You know how bright, intelligent, cultivated he is—a fellow of vivid, keen intellect. He works hard and is ready to turn his hand to anything for your father.”
The fifteen months spanning 1865 and 1866—three in Rio and the rest up-country—were a test of endurance, punctuated for William by smallpox, eye trouble, and the hardships of life in the wilds. Before the end, though, he concluded that he was indeed profiting from the disciplining of his natural quickness and speculative power: “No one,” he wrote home, “sees farther into a generalization than his own knowledge of details extends.” The statement prefigures one of the seminal principles of his later philosophy—the passion for concreteness and the ridding not merely of false but of misused abstraction.
One finds also in these letters from Brazil the early-matured style, strong in the picturesque exaggeration that was a family trait. In William the tone varies easily from reflectiveness (as above) to irony (“I speak Portuguese like a book and am ready to converse for hours on any subject. To be sure, the natives seem to have a slight difficulty in understanding me, but that is their lookout.”) and to extravagance (“I am writing to you in a room 120 ft. long—just about big enough for one man”). Then it may go on to self-searching tenderness about one or another member of the family or even a public figure: “I can’t tell why, but albeit unused to the melting mood, I can hardly think of Abraham Lincoln without feeling on the point of blubber. Is it that he seems the representation of pure simple human nature against all conventional additions?” And looking at the devastation, moral and physical, of the war at home and hoping nobody still wants to hang Jefferson Davis, he concludes: “Can anyone think of revenge now?”
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.”
“Whilst in this state of philosophic pessimism and general depression of spirits about my prospects, I went one evening in a dressing-room in the twilight to procure some article that was there; when suddenly there fell upon me without warning, just as if it came out of the darkness, a horrible fear of my own existence. Simultaneously there arose in my mind the image of an epileptic patient whom I had seen in the asylum, a black-haired youth with greenish skin, entirely idiotic, who used to sit all day on one of the benches, or rather shelves against the wall, with his knees drawn up against his chin, and the coarse grey undershirt, which was his only garment, drawn over them inclosing his entire figure. … This image and my fear entered into a species of combination with each other. That shape am I , I felt, potentially. Nothing that I possess can defend me against that fate, if the hour for it should strike for me as it struck for him. There was such a horror of him, and such a perception of my own merely momentary discrepancy from him, that it was as if something hitherto solid within my breast gave way entirely, and I became a mass of quivering fear. After this the universe was changed for me altogether. I awoke morning after morning with a horrible dread at the pit of my stomach, and with a sense of the insecurity of life that I never knew before, and that I have never felt since. It was like a revelation; and although the immediate feelings passed away, the experience has made me sympathetic with the morbid feelings of others ever since. It gradually faded, but for months I was unable to go into the dark alone.”
No such vision could be counted on to recede by degrees, like the storybook cat, without long intellectual analysis and a heroic “sustaining of the idea” of himself as an active and rational being.
It was during this effort that the news came of cousin Minny Temple’s death. For him, as for Henry, the fact was a devastation. It struck at their tenderest feelings of love, of course, but also at their imagination of love, at the poetry of human excellence, at any trust they might have in life itself. William’s renewed struggle to will his recovery seems to be linked with that loss, turning it into a source of energy through the recognition of the tragic and the resolve to accept himself. A diary entry dated two weeks after Minny’s death gives the contents of this emotional upturn: “By that big part of me that’s in the tomb with you, may I realize and believe in the immediacy of death! May I feel that every torment suffered here passes and is a breath of wind—every pleasure too. Acts and examples stay. … Is our patience so short-winded, our curiosity so dead or our grit so loose that that one instant snatched out of the endless age should not be cheerfully sat out? Minny, your death makes me feel the nothingness of all our egotistic fury. The inevitable release is sure; wherefore take our turn kindly whatever it contain. Ascend to some sort of partnership with fate and since tragedy is at the heart of us, go to meet it, work it in to our ends, instead of dodging it all our days. … Use your death (or your life, it’s all one meaning)…”
To outward view that young wastrel nearing thirty was not the wretched, impulse-torn creature that he knew himself to be. He finally found a use for his knowledge of many subjects in his first consecutive, recognized, official occupation. James had attended a course of lectures on optical phenomena and the eye, which led him to some experiments of his own in a lab he used at the medical school. This initiative attracted notice. In 1872 James was offered and accepted an instructorship in anatomy and physiology at Harvard; his colleagues included Henry Adams, John Fiske, and Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. The odyssey was over: James had found his vocation.
But apart from his existential need to come to terms with life, how did James conceive the task of philosophy at large? He tells us in a book review of 1875: “All philosophic reflection is essentially skeptical at the start. To common sense, and in fact to all living thought, matters actually thought of are held to be absolutely and objectively as we think them. Every representation becomes relative, flickering, insecure, only when reduced, only in the light of further consideration which we may confront it with. This may be called its reductive . Now the reductive of most of our confident beliefs is that they are our beliefs; that we are turbid media; and that a form of being may exist uncontaminated by the touch of the fallacious knowing subject. The motive of most philosophies has been to find a position from which one could exorcise the reductive , and remain securely in possession of a secure belief.”
It is perhaps worth noting about these words that James, when he wrote them, had just begun teaching his first course in psychology; it must have brought home to him more strongly than ever that the relation of the mind to objects is not a simple one and that any contribution of psychology to philosophy must be made as definite as possible by experiment. Now, of the current “reductives,” scientific materialism was favored by James’s closest friends; to James it was not good enough. As he had told Wendell Holmes more than once: “I’m blest if I’m a Materialist: the materialist posits an X for his ultimate principle. Were he satisfied to inhabit this vacuous X, I should not at present try to disturb him. But that atmosphere is too rare; so he spends all his time on the road between it and sensible realities, engaged in the laudable pursuit of degrading every (sensibly) higher thing into a (sensibly) lower. … It availeth little that he should at the end put in his little caveat that, after all, the low denomination is as unreal as the unreduced higher ones were. … What balm is it, when instead of my High you have given me a Low, to tell me that the Low is good for nothing?”
His diverse studies merged into an encyclopedic experience of the kind that forms great artists and epoch-making thinkers.
This allusive critique of reductionism needs a word of explanation, and deserves it, for it is central to James’s thought: reality is not found by replacing some full experience with a list of its smaller components. The reduction distorts. In other words, James affirmed the main insight of Gestalt psychology and philosophy long before its birth.
But what is X and what are the “sensible realities” that Holmes or Wright kept pushing one grade lower, “laudably” says James with irony? X is matter, which no one has ever seen, heard, or touched, for it is an assumption made by the materialist as a backstop for his actual sensations—what is seen, heard, touched, and so on—the “sensible” (sensed) elements of all experience, behind which no one can go. The unsatisfactoriness of “matter” as the ultimate reality is Berkeley’s great demonstration, which cannot be got around. Dr. Johnson missed the point when he kicked a large stone, as Boswell relates, and thought he had refuted Berkeley. No one has ever denied that a stone is hard and real. But the question remains, is there behind or below the hardness an “invisible pincushion” that holds together all the sensible “pins” (hard, rough, round, grayish, brown, etc.) of ordinary experience? If so, what is it? Matter, answers the materialist. Mind (or God’s mind), says the idealist, each a man of faith unable to bring his hypothesis to the proof. In the Psychology and later, we shall see James at war with both those hitherto prevalent views of the century he was born in.
Meanwhile he is unwilling to see any part of experience “lowered” by any kind of analysis, as if it thereby became “more real” or “ultimate.” This Jamesian resistance to reductionism, like the role of psychology in his thought, is the mark of his contribution to the intellectual revolution of the 1880s and ’90s.