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The Thought Experimenter | The Nation

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The Thought Experimenter

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Little more than a century ago, philosophers still raised fundamental questions to nonspecialist audiences. Consider the scene at the YMCA in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in April 1895, when an eager group gathered to hear Professor William James of the Harvard philosophy department ask: "Is Life Worth Living?" This scene is of course unimaginable today. For most educated professionals, such profoundly personal yet paradoxically universal matters have become unmentionable in public. But those ultimate questions will not go away.

About the Author

Jackson Lears
Jackson Lears teaches American history at Rutgers University. He is the editor of Raritan: A Quarterly Review and the...

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William James made a brilliant career of asking them. On that April night in Cambridge, he was in top form. His reputation had soared since the publication in 1890 of his two-volume Principles of Psychology, which both established the academic legitimacy of the discipline and revolutionized many of its assumptions. His life was a blur of speaking engagements, occasional pieces for magazines and papers delivered at conferences--along with a full load of Harvard undergraduates. In three years he would be invited to give the Gifford Lectures at Edinburgh University, which would result in The Varieties of Religious Experience. Beyond Varieties lay his philosophical explorations in radical empiricism and pragmatism. But despite the wide range of his curiosity, nearly all his chief concerns were present in that YMCA lecture. Everything, for James, boiled down to the question of how to escape the enveloping fear that life was essentially meaningless--how to get out of bed in the morning and get on with the business of living.

"My words are to deal only with that metaphysical tedium vitae which is peculiar to reflecting men," James announced. It was especially peculiar to James's generation. For educated Americans who came of age during or soon after the Civil War, positivistic science blew like a frigid wind across the intellectual landscape, dispelling the comforting warmth of inherited faith, reducing reality to the precisely observable and measurable, challenging familiar ideas of morality and freedom. The specter of determinism threatened to turn the most exalted human strivings into the twitchings of automatons. No wonder "reflecting men"--and women--fell into a tedium vitae from time to time.

James insisted that the positivist case against religious faith was not proven. It was still intellectually permissible to believe in "the existence of an unseen order of some kind in which the riddle of the natural order may be found explained." What was no longer possible was the old dogmatic certitude--but that was less a loss than a gain, an opening to the enchanting world of "maybe." It was a world where almost anything was possible, even a heterodox God--a finite, unfinished deity-in-process who needed human beings as much as the other way around. Uncertainty was the key to the ethic of maybe; "not a victory is gained, not a deed of faithfulness or courage is done, except upon a maybe," James said. Risk was the essence of life.

And the risk of belief in that "unseen order" was the bet with the biggest payoff. James characterized the stakes starkly: "If this life be not a real fight, in which something is eternally gained for the universe by success, it is no better than a game of private theatricals from which one may withdraw at will. But it feels like a real fight--as if there were something really wild in the universe which we, with all our idealities and faithfulnesses, are needed to redeem." Betting on belief brought revitalization in this world rather than salvation in the next. This activist reworking of Pascal's wager lay at the core of James's thought. He subjected religious truths to the pragmatic test, evaluating them with respect to their consequences--which, at least in his own case, made life worth living.

But why did life have to be "a real fight" in order to be worth living? The question pushes us back into the biography of a man who sat out the "real fight" of his generation, the Civil War, while his best friend (Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.) and two of his brothers served and fought. Yet while James longed for manly testing like many of his contemporaries (most notoriously Theodore Roosevelt), he never equated masculinity with martial virtue. Instead he rejected imperialism and sought a "moral equivalent of war."

Asking "Is Life Worth Living?" allowed James to gesture toward all his major themes--the centrality of chance, choice and moral struggle; the pragmatic value of religious belief; the fascination with "wildness" as well as with its redemption. The lecture also epitomized his ability to bring cosmic questions down to earth, to engage them with a visceral passion. He first staked his claim to an academic reputation by arguing for the biological basis of the human mind, while at the same time he resisted the reduction of spirit to matter. Philosophy was rooted in psychology, which in turn was rooted in physiology. Seldom has a thinker been so thoroughly embodied in his thought.

Robert Richardson recognizes the union of thought and thinker. (His epigraph is the passage about life as "a real fight.") This is one of the many strengths of his superb intellectual biography, which may be the most fully rounded portrait of William James that we have ever had. The book combines a deft attention to texts with a keen awareness of contexts. The most important context, as Richardson realizes, is the transatlantic ferment of Modernism. For decades, James's allegedly "American" traits have been used to justify his appropriation by cultural chauvinists keen to juxtapose Yankee practicality against "European" ideology. Richardson says goodbye to all that. He reveals how thoroughly James was involved in the redefinition of mind--and the reconnection of mind to body--that was occurring on both sides of the Atlantic in the decades leading up to World War I.

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