The Thought Experimenter

The Thought Experimenter

A new biography of William James portrays a man who made a brilliant career of asking tough questions.


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.

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.

Yet even this biography, for all its reach, does not fully capture James’s originality: the melding of modern and antimodern sensibilities in his Modernist worldview, the profound differences between him and the other thinkers who took to calling themselves “pragmatists.” In the suppleness of his thought, James was sui generis, then as now. He despised the intellectual hubris of reductionist explanation–how deftly he would have skewered the lumps of pop-evolutionary argument served up by the likes of Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett, and how effectively the inquisitive title of his essay “Does Consciousness Exist?” counters the pomposity of Dennett’s Consciousness Explained. Nobody ever accused James of avoiding the tough questions.

James’s intellectual openness underlay his radical empiricism. He took all sorts of experience seriously, including hallucination and despair. To be sure, there was something characteristically “American” in his discomfort with the past, his willed embrace of the present and future. Yet he never denied his own experience with suicidal depression; instead he mixed “life’s bitterer flavors” into his mature worldview. If one friend said James was “born afresh every morning,” another said it seemed “he had just stepped out of this sadness in order to meet you.” James’s own unresolved conflicts animated his philosophy. He resisted closure to the end. In his last published piece, he borrowed a phrase from “a pluralistic mystic,” Benjamin Paul Blood, to serve as “pluralism’s heraldic device.” It was “ever not quite.”

James’s father, Henry Sr., would have flatly refused that motto. Insisting that “God is the only being in the universe,” he was a thoroughgoing monist and Swedenborgian mystic–freed by his inherited wealth to pursue a life of endless travel and philosophical eccentricity. His lavish ways would soon exhaust the family money supply; William and his brother Henry would be forced to write for pay and cut the best publishing deals they could manage. (Both became pretty good at it.) But their childhood was privileged–a restless idyll of hotel rooms in New York, Geneva, London and Paris, and (for a few years) a house in Newport, Rhode Island, where William began to display his considerable artistic talent. The painter John La Farge was impressed, but not Henry James Sr. He wanted his son to follow the sterner path of science. The firing on Fort Sumter brought matters to a head. Henry Sr. did not want his eldest son to go to war, and William did not press the point. Though he signed up as a ninety-day recruit in the Newport Artillery Company, he never served in the Army. Despite Richardson’s exhaustive research, we never learn how William avoided the draft when it was instituted later in the war. One assumes Henry Sr. hired a substitute. William’s absence from the fight would haunt him for the rest of his life.

Instead of going to war he went to Harvard, “a small and stagnant place” in 1861 (as Richardson observes) but also the home of the Lawrence Scientific School, where James could pursue a course of study that would please his father. More important, the science curriculum, mediocre as it may have been, knocked some of the naïve idealism out of William, immersing him in the palpable, resistant reality of the material world. “What is real,” he would later write, “always pushes back.” Yet even as he confronted the irresistible power of matter, he also began to explore subtler forces, by following the research of Michael Faraday into electromagnetism. Perhaps it was from Faraday, Richardson suggests, that James derived his lifelong fascination with energy. If matter pushed back, energy rushed forward–and promised somehow to redeem matter from its inertia. “Matter is motion, motion is force, force is will,” James would later write. Characteristically, he brought the categories down to the personal level, from abstract force to individual will.

But increasingly he was troubled by the specter of a merely material universe, where human actions were determined by chemical or biological circumstance and free will was little more than a convenient fiction. Traditional theism was no longer an option, even as it was defended by the charismatic star of the Lawrence Scientific School, Louis Agassiz–sworn enemy of Darwin who vowed to discredit the theory of natural selection by locating scientific evidence of special creation. James thought Agassiz was a brilliant teacher and even accompanied him on a specimen-hunting trip to Brazil, but in the end he decided Darwin had the better of the argument. What troubled James was not Darwinism but the broader set of materialist assumptions that characterized most scientific disciplines by the later nineteenth century. His decision to attend Harvard Medical School, which was committed to the practical side of medicine, plunged him more deeply into the realm of brute fact. In a world where mechanical causation was the only kind that mattered, James remained haunted by the fear that moral action was meaningless.

James took philosophical issues personally, even physically. In a universe empty of meaning, what was an honorable man to do? Since his Newport days, when he had struggled to paint despite his father’s indifference, James had been tormented by mysterious and probably psychosomatic ailments–indigestion, back pain, eye strain. All these disorders persisted through the late 1860s and early 1870s, accompanied by immobilizing bouts of severe depression. As Richardson describes it, James fell into a pattern of crash, resolution, partial recovery, followed by another crash. The most memorable crash came in the spring of 1870; years later James recounted it (attributing it to a correspondent) in Varieties: “I went one evening into a dressing room in the twilight to procure some article that was there; when suddenly there fell upon me without any warning, just as if it came out of the darkness, a horrible fear of my own existence.” The fear merged with the image of a hopeless epileptic patient he had seen in an asylum, who “sat there like a sort of sculptured Egyptian cat or Peruvian mummy, moving nothing but his black eyes and looking absolutely non-human.” This vision of an Absolute Other (complete with exotic, imperial connotations) provoked a terrifying sense of kinship in James. “That shape am I, I felt, potentially,” he remembered. “Nothing that I possess can defend me against that fate, if the hour for it should strike for me as it struck for him.” Seldom has the fear of non-being, of the loss of the self, been put so palpably. James had looked into the abyss, and the abyss had looked (blankly) back. What would now be characterized as a panic attack was for him an encounter with nothingness. As Richardson observes, the recollection of this experience helped to account for the hint of sadness in James’s eyes that one sees in nearly every photo of him.

Still his emotional state remained labile, unpredictable. From time to time he glimpsed a way out. One such occasion was the death of his bright and spirited cousin Minnie Temple, at 24, from consumption. James was more than a little in love with Minnie, and her death was a crushing loss for him. But it also made him realize that we have to “ascend to some sort of partnership with fate, and since tragedy is at the heart of us, go to meet it, work it to our ends, instead of dodging it all our days, and being run down by it at last. Use your death (or your life, it’s all one meaning) tat tvam asi.” The last phrase, Richardson observes, is from the Chandogya Upanishad; James translated it as “that art Thou.” The implication was that since the principle of God was common to both the cosmos and the individual, Minnie Temple’s spirit was one with the spirit of the whole universe. It was “a sudden revelation,” Richardson writes, “and not a Christian one.” What began in an existentialist idiom (“use your death”) ended in a mystical intimation of a larger life beyond individual human life.

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?

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.

But James could never be merely a positive thinker. That became apparent in Varieties, which contrasted “the religion of healthy-mindedness” with the travails of the “twice-born” and “sick souls”–among whom James included himself (disguised). Healthy-minded believers felt at home in the universe; sick souls felt that they were “living on a frozen lake surrounded by cliffs,” knowing that the ice was melting. Their sense of dread could be cured only through some kind of conversion experience. Yet even this could not heal the divisions in the sick soul. “Neither Bunyan nor Tolstoy could become what we have called healthy-minded,” James wrote. “They had drunk too deeply of the cup of bitterness ever to forget its taste, and their redemption is into a universe two stories deep. Each of them realized a good which broke the effective edge of his sadness, yet the sadness was preserved as a minor ingredient in the heart of the faith by which it was overcome.” This was autobiography. “If there was one thing James understood all the way down, it was the persistence of sadness,” Richardson perceptively observes.

Protestant in sensibility if not belief, James focused on personal narratives of the inner life–especially conversion experiences–rather than communal rituals or observances. While this narrowed his range, it increased his intensity, his ability to locate that “hot place in a man’s consciousness” that constituted “the habitual center of his personal energy.” Sometimes the experiences in Varieties resonated with James’s own “hot places.” This was especially true of the ineffable but noetic experience of mysticism, the feeling that one’s identity was somehow merging with a larger cosmic or perhaps even divine identity. There is “More,” and you are part of it. Tat tvam asi.

Yet James was unwilling simply to accept the faith in “More.” He characteristically turned belief into an active proposition, a bet. “No fact in human nature is more characteristic than its willingness to live on a chance,” he wrote. Taking a risk on “More” did not mean embracing traditional theism. “Who knows whether the faithfulness of individuals here below to their own poor over-beliefs may not actually help God in turn to be more effectively faithful to his own greater tasks?” This was the quintessence of “ever not quite”–a pluralistic universe where even God’s tasks are unfinished. This was hardly orthodox Christianity.

From Jonathan Edwards to Emerson and Whitman, an American tradition celebrated mystical experiences as orgasmic congress with Nature (if not with God). James had experienced something like this one July night in the Adirondacks in 1898, not long after he had been invited to give the Gifford Lectures. He described it as a tumultuous convocation of pagan and orthodox deities: “The streaming moonlight lit up things in a magical checkered play, and it seemed as if the gods of all the nature-mythologies were holding an indescribable meeting in my breast with the moral gods of the inner life.” This was the experience that triggered The Varieties of Religious Experience, and unlike much of the rest of the mysticism recounted in that volume, it was pluralistic rather than monistic. It was not a matter of merging with the One but of mingling with the many.

Though Richardson does not catch the connection, pluralism in religious matters could be a polite name for polytheism–the paradoxically antimodern impulse animating many forms of Modernist thought. More democratic and inclusive in his sympathies than Henry Adams, T.S. Eliot and other antimodern Modernists, James nevertheless shared their desire to escape the metaphysical dead end of positivist certainty. At the apex of monotheism and secularism, in the confident Anglophone culture of the early 1900s, they imagined a return of repressed gods that might be more than a heap of broken images. James was animated by this yearning, too.

His openness to varieties of belief arose not out of mere tolerance but from a passionate commitment to the possibility of multiple explanations. He refused to dismiss the validity of individual experiences–no matter how bizarre–without giving them a fair hearing. Though he remained a skeptic, he contained multitudes. He tolerated all sorts of disreputable beliefs, from spiritualism to psychoanalysis. Theories of the unconscious were especially appealing to a sick soul, reborn into a two-storied universe. He insisted on the importance of attending to “wild facts” that fail to fit existing formulas. “The great field for new discoveries,” he wrote, “is always the Unclassified Residuum.” Radical empiricism was good science.

James’s intellectual openness had political implications. In “On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings,” he had written of how difficult and important it was for people (including himself) to cultivate awareness of other people’s inner lives–especially of that vital center of being that gave them meaning and purpose. A pluralistic foreign policy would sanction multiple vital centers, granting legitimacy to local aspirations even among “backward” peoples; an imperial foreign policy, by contrast, denied those aspirations in the name of progress. After the Spanish-American War, the extension of the American empire to the Philippines required the brutal suppression of the Filipinos’ own independence movement, while imperialists brayed at home about democracy and self-determination. James was livid: “What an absolute savage and pirate the passion of military conquest always is,” he wrote in the Boston Transcript. Detesting “mere bigness,” he recoiled from the coming world of corporations and mega-states.

James did have one thing in common with imperialists like Roosevelt: a longing for regeneration. It sparked James’s quest for a “moral equivalent of war” to counteract Roosevelt’s belligerence. But James moved beyond morality to a fascination with energy itself. Part of the appeal of mind-cure and other therapies preaching a “Gospel of Relaxation” was that they offered to reawaken us to new life and power. James was interested in any idea, religious or secular, that unleashed energy and moved us to effective action.

James’s growing preoccupation with tapping into unseen powers linked him with Modernist thinkers on both sides of the Atlantic. The taxonomies and determinisms of positivist science were giving way to more fluid and indeterminate conceptions of nature. As Richardson writes: “Einstein’s equation for the equivalence of mass and energy, and James’s assertion of the equivalence of thought and thinker, forged, together with modern art and modern music, a new world, a world James both lived in and helped bring about.”

Like other Modernist thinkers, James replaced subject-object dualism with an emphasis on the mind in constant dialogue with the world. The origins of Modernist “process philosophy” can be traced to the brilliant chapter in the Principles, “The Stream of Thought.” As James wrote, our mental life, “like a bird’s life, seems to be made of an alternation of flights and perchings.” Previously philosophers had paid attention only to the perchings. James’s great transatlantic ally was the vitalist Henri Bergson, whose ideas were very close to what James was cooking up himself at about this time: “a philosophy of pure experience.” Like the late novels of Henry James, the late philosophy of William James turned “on grammatical particles. ‘With, near, next, like, from, towards, against, because, for, through, my,’–these words designate types of conjunctive relations arranged in a roughly ascending order of intimacy and inclusiveness.” Life was in the transitions as much as in the terms connected.

This was not relativism, as Richardson notes, but relationism. Though he does not elaborate on the term, it suggests the largest significance of James’s philosophy–his capacity to conceive the immersion of all thought in the “blooming, buzzing confusion” of “pure experience,” without losing the active role of mind in moving from percept to concept. James preferred “both-and” to “either-or.” No wonder contemporary theorists of consciousness, resisting the reductionism of Dennett and Dawkins, have begun to rediscover William James. His radical empiricism may yet prove more durable than his pragmatism.

Richardson implies as much by making James’s pragmatism little more than an afterthought to his absorption in the intellectual ferment of Modernism. There is good reason for this. The vaunted “pragmatic method,” articulated by the logician Charles Peirce, was appropriated by James for his own idiosyncratic purposes. Pragmatists all argued that ideas should be judged by their actual consequences. For many, including John Dewey, good consequences were those that promoted enlightened public policy. This benign but implicitly utilitarian perspective promoted the assimilation of pragmatism into managerial liberalism. But James detached pragmatism from conventional criteria of utility (“what works”). For him, the consequences of ideas could be as personal as getting out of bed in the morning, or stepping out of a sadness to meet someone. Even everyday acts could require a quiet heroism. We can only be grateful that James managed to keep summoning it.

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