The Thought Experimenter | The Nation


The Thought Experimenter

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A more characteristic escape hatch from depression, for James, involved the affirmation of will, choice and habit. The key moment was his reading of a passage by French philosopher Charles Renouvier. "I finished the first part of Renouvier's 2nd Essay and saw no reason why his definition of free will--the sustaining of a thought because I choose to when I might have other thoughts--need be the definition of an illusion," James wrote in his diary six weeks after Minnie's death. "My first act of free will shall be to believe in free will." This was a pivotal moment in his intellectual development, especially since he coupled it with a renewed emphasis on the importance of "habits of order." Discipline was crucial: "Not in maxims... but in accumulated acts of thought lies salvation." For historians, this has long been the key to James's turnaround--what could be more inspiring (especially to intellectuals) than the tale of a man thinking his way out of a depression?

About the Author

Jackson Lears
Jackson Lears is editor of Raritan, and is writing a history of animal spirits in American economic and cultural life.

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Unfortunately it is not altogether accurate. James continued to flail about for another couple of years. Renouvier provided an important theoretical rationale for escape from depression, but what finally sprung the trap for good was simpler: a job. On the recommendation of James's friend Henry Bowditch, Charles Eliot appointed him professor of anatomy and physiology at Harvard. Here was a reason to get out of bed in the morning. James responded swiftly to work and structure. His health improved. He earned the first money of his life (at 31). And soon he began courting Alice Gibbens, who was comely, literate, perceptive and patient--a superb life partner for James, as it turned out. By the mid-1870s, William had been emotionally reborn. His feverish pursuit of Alice spawned a burst of creative energy. He wrote Alice excited letters about his new sense of self, which he experienced during those moments when "he felt himself most deeply and intensely active and alive." This was the "deepest principle," he concluded, behind all his theories. Deftly responding, she sent him a compass. A year later they were married.

James's writing during this period revealed the shape of his thoughts to come. In reviews and lectures he began to explore the creative potential of uncertainty. "Doubt itself is an active state," he wrote, becoming convinced that what we call freedom grew out of what physicists call chance. Challenging Herbert Spencer's influential work, he insisted that the mind was more than a passive reflector of reality; preference and interest, not external stimuli, were the key to consciousness. Alice's compass was working its way. Philosophical problems were at bottom psychological problems, James concluded, and rationality itself was rooted in sentiment--the wish for a world that made sense.

Still, wishes were not enough. James was enough of a scientist to know that reality had its own agenda. Through the 1880s, as he struggled to complete the long-overdue Principles, he continued to sort through the conflicting claims of matter and mind. In 1885 the death of his 18-month-old son, Herman (James called him "Humster"), made clear that the issues would remain profoundly personal. "To anyone who has ever looked on the face of a dead child or parent," he reflected years later, "the mere fact that matter could have taken for a time that precious form, ought to make matter sacred for ever after." James remained an idiosyncratic materialist.

The question, for him, was how to acknowledge the biological foundations of thought without reducing mental life to mere reflex. So he explored the boundaries between voluntary and involuntary action. In voluntary actions, James wrote, "the act is foreseen from the very first. The idea of it always precedes its execution." But the path from thought to accomplishment was not simply an exercise of will. James observed that "before the will can get to work it needs a store of recollections of how various movements may feel." Habit created neural pathways. Consider, James suggested, how we get out of bed on a cold morning. We may lie in bed "for an hour at a time unable to brace ourselves to the resolve," until "we suddenly find that we have got up." We consent to the original impulse to get up because the inhibiting impulses momentarily fall away and the habit of getting up exerts itself. James's chapter on "Habit" in Principles unveiled a physiological explanation for his deliverance from despair. He had learned how to get out of bed in the morning.

Yet James's intellectual commitments were more than an exercise in establishing habitual behavior. He knew that volition sometimes involved deliberate decision and sustained effort--such as his choice to "believe in free will." Indeed, as Richardson observes, the chapter on will and the heroism of effort is the peak moment in Principles: " 'Will you or won't you have it so?' is the most probing question we are ever asked," James wrote. His obsession with will and choice was scarcely unique among upper-class Victorian men, many of whom aimed to exorcise the demons of doubt through action. But while James celebrated action, he did not flee doubt. He celebrated its capacity to deepen faith.

Yet James's determination to be up and doing prevented him from ever taking pleasure in the contemplation of the past, or pondering the powerful links between memory and imagination. To dwell even fitfully on the past, for James, was to risk crippling nostalgia; the past was the shadow side of will and therefore must be rejected. There were times, too, when his privileged freedom allowed him to risk reifying choice into an autonomous force, a black box that solved all philosophical problems. "We need only in cold blood ACT as if the thing in question were real, and keep acting as if it were real, and it will infallibly end by growing into such a connection with our life that it will become real," he wrote in 1888. From his own experience, James knew that the mind-body relationship was a two-way street; his belief in the power of belief led him to sympathize with "mind-cure" and other cults of positive thinking that surfaced in America at the turn of the century and have frequently resurfaced since.

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