William James was born in 1842 and died in 1910. His contemporary, the philosopher George Santayana, said James "represented the true America, and represented in a measure the whole ultramodern, radical world." He continues to be strikingly radical, and modern as well, though the richness of his vision creates a modernity that is as sunlight to moonlight, to borrow a phrase of his, compared with the wised-up and rather disheartened worldview we associate with this term.
Through the whole of his work, James elaborates, without repetition, a philosophic method that never becomes a system or an ideology. This is a conscious and highly meaningful act of restraint, one that paradoxically opens and enlarges the conceptual universe of philosophy. In his Principles of Psychology he says, "The only real truth about the world, apart from particular purposes, is the total truth." This standard, though impossible in itself, permits and requires crucial inclusions that have not been characteristic of dominant schools of modern thought. He says, "The world contains consciousness as well as atoms—and the one must be written down as just as essential as the other, in the absence of any declared purpose regarding them on the creator’s part, or in the absence of any creator…. Atoms alone, or consciousness alone, are precisely equal mutilations of the truth." James insists that reality, philosophically understood, must include humankind and all it entails, notably thought itself, on equal terms with all other phenomena. The great ages in history, he says, "have said to the human being, ‘the inmost nature of the reality is congenial to powers which you possess.’" This may sound to us like an optimism the culture has outlived. But he may only be describing an exceptionalism we dread to acknowledge.
James’s philosophy has the qualities of a lucid and deeply coherent vision that is not to be distinguished from his method. He says, "If philosophy is more a matter of passionate vision than of logic—and I believe it is, logic only finding reasons for the vision afterwards," then a vision that is defective or thin fails as philosophy. He brings an aesthetic standard to bear on thought, discovering "a certain native poverty of mental demand" in the work of some contemporaries, admiring by comparison scholasticism and Hegel because they both "ran thick." A great philosophy must create a conceptual world large enough for a vigorous mind to inhabit, and within which, and against which, it can exercise its powers. His "pragmatism," his insistence that ideas are meaningful not for their internal logic or coherence but in the ways they are reflected in behavior, secures a central place for thought within phenomenal reality by underscoring its effect. For better and worse, subjectively and therefore objectively, ideas shape the world.
On no grounds whatever, our chastened worldview is taken to require the exclusion from philosophic thought of the human self as experience. Now, when our mingled nature is overwhelmingly an issue in determining the future of the planet, we fold ourselves into the natural order that only we can threaten, as if it were realism rather than evasion to minimize our singular gifts and propensities and to pass ourselves off as nothing more than the cleverest of the apes. Like old Adam hiding in the Edenic underbrush, trying to deny that his presence has added any new element to the world’s being, we minimize the fact that we, alone in nature, can and do make choices whose consequences are profound, endless, unfathomable. Refusing our exceptionalism we deny its essence and mystery—the mind in time and through time, the ponderings of aged civilizations as surely as the sudden lonely insight. The openness of James’s method to the reality of everything human is sound and empirical. In this and in much else he represents choices we would do well to return to, options we would still find of use.