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The Thinker Who Believed in Doing

William James and the philosophy of pragmatism

By Peter Gibbon | HUMANITIES, Winter 2018 | Volume 39, Number 1

On a late September morning in 1891, William James walked reluctantly to his class in Harvard College’s Sever Hall. Characteristically dressed in a colorful shirt and a Norfolk jacket with a boutonniere, he must have seemed slightly bohemian. His lectures were spontaneous and rambling, unlike those of his more logical, organized colleagues. James claimed he did not like teaching, particularly to listless Harvard undergraduates. Yet he was good at it, even exceptional. Conversation with James, Walter Lippmann recalled, was “the greatest thing that has happened to me in my college life.” W. E. B. Du Bois wrote, “He was my friend and guide to clear thinking.” In his biography of James, Robert Richardson says, “William James was one of America’s great teachers.” 

William James also avoided his study. In 1878 he signed a contract to write a psychology textbook in two years. It took 12. Writing was harder for him than speaking at conferences or climbing mountains. Sprinkled with anecdotes and personal examples and written in energetic prose, The Principles of Psychology, published in 1890, was praised in America and Europe both by academics and lay readers. Historian Jacques Barzun declared it a classic and likened it to Moby-Dick

The psychology text was just a start. Throughout his life, James wrote essays and books that transformed psychology and philosophy. He popularized pragmatism, a distinctly American way of thinking that argues we must test our beliefs and decisions by results. 

In Talks to Teachers on Psychology he took the insights of psychology to the classroom. In widely read essays, such as “What Makes A Life Significant,” he extolled optimism and empathy. At the end of his life, he wrote The Varieties of Religious Experience, legitimizing faith for an age dominated by reason and science. Alfred North Whitehead believed James was as significant a thinker as Plato, Aristotle, and Leibniz.

Who was this man? Why is he relevant today? 

William James came from a distinguished and privileged family. His father, Henry, independently wealthy, was a friend of Emerson and Thoreau and wrote for the Atlantic Monthly. Restless, he moved his family from London to Paris to Newport, introducing them to Alfred Lord Tennyson and John Stuart Mill and seeking enlightenment and the perfect education for his five children, whom he cherished. William’s brother, Henry James, was one of America’s well-known novelists, writing about American aristocratic expatriates during the Gilded Age. Alice James, their sister, has recently become famous for her letters and diaries, emblematic of women stifled in a patriarchal, Victorian society. 

William, the oldest child and always precocious, educated himself but could not find purpose or a career. In 1860 he studied art in Newport with William Morris Hunt. He journeyed to the Amazon in 1865 with the famous scientist Louis Agassiz to collect and study fish. He studied anatomy at Harvard Medical School. And he read voraciously: Charles Darwin, George Eliot, Thomas Huxley, Fyodor Dostoyevsky. 

Neuroses accompanied his talent and wealth. Beneath an ebullient exterior, James concealed doubt and chronic illness—a bad back, weak eyes, constipation, insomnia, and depression. He avoided the Civil War, traveled back and forth from Europe, sank into suicidal melancholy, and sought relief with water cures, electrical currents, hypnosis, and nitrous oxide. He sought answers in books by such diverse thinkers as Thomas Carlyle and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Not until his mid 30s did he settle down and find some purpose and energy and some slight relief from his ailments. 

Work and love were transformative. Charles William Eliot, president of a resurgent Harvard, offered James a job teaching anatomy in 1873. The publishing house Henry Holt gave him the contract for his psychology text. At 36 he married Alice Gibbens, a cultured, strong woman, devoted to her neurasthenic husband and the mother of their five children. In an apology after an argument with Alice, he wrote from abroad, “Darling, in all seriousness you have lifted me up out of lonely hell. . . . You have redeemed my life from destruction.” 

Although James was grateful for his marriage to Alice, he never remained serene. He fled to the mountains when the semesters ended and departed to Europe when his Alice gave birth. He relapsed into melancholy and consulted psychics. As compensation for morbidness and passivity and as an antidote for recurring ill health, he commended optimism and action. His student at Harvard, Theodore Roosevelt, wrote: “Black care rarely sits behind a rider whose pace is fast enough.” James would have agreed.

Delivering the two-volume manuscript of The Principles of Psychology to his impatient publisher, James attached a note, which read, “No one could be more disgusted than I at the sight of the book.” Fellow academics quickly recognized a monumental work that combined laboratory research with introspective insights. James later rewrote some of the chapters for a condensed version that Harvard students affectionately called “Jimmy,” and Psychology: Briefer Course became the most important psychology textbook for college students across the country. 

An early chapter of Psychology, “Habit,” was typical: “There is no more miserable human being than one in whom nothing is habitual but indecision.” James makes the case for habit, calling it the “enormous fly-wheel of society,” and offers specific suggestions about how to make useful actions automatic: Make resolutions, publicize them, act on them, and persist. Proper habits acted upon and pursued become embedded in the brain. Automaticity diminishes fatigue and sets free “our higher powers of mind.” It makes daily life bearable and civilization flourish. 

James invented the phrase “stream of consciousness” to describe the workings of our minds. Our thinking is not orderly or logical but chaotic, our moods constantly and inexplicably shifting. “What was bright and exciting becomes weary, flat, and unprofitable.” The purpose of Psychology was to provide tentative insights into our vagrant minds and oscillating emotions. James tries to explain how we remember, how we associate, imagine, reason, feel, and act. 

He consults authorities. In the chapter “On Self” he invokes Job and Marcus Aurelius. He becomes personal, unusual in textbooks. In “On Attention,” he mocks a procrastinating professor (likely himself) who will trim his nails, set the fire, or take down a book to avoid teaching a course on formal logic, which he hates. He offers advice on improving memory, fighting melancholy, and getting out of bed in the morning. 

Of course parts of Psychology are dated. James did not know about the billions of neurons in the brain, the synapses that connect them, and neurotransmitters, such as dopamine and oxytocin. He could not peer into the brain during sexual arousal or depression. Contemporary psychologists would be put off by his digressions and moralizing and envious of his literary flair. Yet modesty was one of his appealing qualities: He expected and looked forward to being replaced by a “Galileo of psychology.”

In the mid 1890s James took to the road, traveling from Boston to Chicago to Colorado Springs, lecturing to thousands of teachers in an attempt to make money and to make his psychological research relevant in the classroom. He condensed his lectures into a small book called Talks to Teachers on Psychology.

Drawing from the chapter on association in Psychology, James argued that the skilled teacher commands attention by connecting his subject with students’ previous knowledge and experience. He lauds the masterful connector, the imaginative associator, the instructor who seizes the right moment and sets the right example. 

James was optimistic about human potential but realistic about human nature. In the chapters “Will” and “Instinct,” this forerunner of evolutionary psychology reminded teachers that humans are aggressive, competitive, and covetous, but added that our fighting instinct can be made an ally of the educator by driving us to master difficult, unpalatable subjects: “Make the pupil feel ashamed of being scared of fractions, of being ‘downed’ by the law of falling bodies.” 

Anticipating E. D. Hirsch’s defense of cultural literacy, James claimed that the best educated mind has the largest stock of ideas and concepts “ready to meet the largest possible variety of the emergencies of life.” At the same time anticipating Howard Gardner’s discovery of multiple intelligences, James insists that students vary in temperament and that a skilled instructor uses different techniques for different learning styles. Rare among Harvard professors at the time, James encouraged questions, praised without reservation, and invited students into his home. He was patient when a young Theodore Roosevelt pontificated. 

I start the memorial service for my father in Cleveland’s Unitarian Church with a quotation from William James: “Be not afraid of life. Believe that life is worth living and your belief will help create the fact.” My father liked James, who stressed experimentation, affirmation, and action. Americans are practical and inventive, craving facts, weighing costs and benefits. For an idealistic, optimistic, utilitarian nation, James created an American philosophy, pragmatism.

Pragmatism was a method for making decisions, testing beliefs, settling arguments. In a world of chance and incomplete information, James insisted that truth was elusive but action mandatory. The answer: Make a decision and see if it works. Try a belief and see if your life improves. Don’t depend on logic and reason alone, add in experience and results. Shun ideology and abstraction. Take a chance. “Truth happens to an idea. It becomes true, is made true by events.” 

James insisted he was more of a popularizer and synthesizer than an originator. Aristotle and John Stuart Mill were pragmatists, exponents of empiricism. Of course, some philosophers were skeptical of pragmatism. Truth becomes whatever is useful, whatever has cash value. Bertrand Russell was terrified that pragmatism would dethrone the ideal of objective truth, calling it “a form of the subjective madness which is characteristic of most modern philosophy.” Pragmatism to these skeptics encourages relativism and subjectivity and leads to irrationalism.

Not so, says contemporary historian James Kloppenberg. Pragmatism swept through the first half of twentieth-century America, encouraging the experimentation of Progressivism and the New Deal. Retreating, it is now returning, influencing legal realism and encouraging cultural pluralism and scientific government. According to Kloppenberg, it contributed to the worldview of Barack Obama. Pragmatism is the enemy of certainty, simplification, and fanaticism. It champions skepticism, experimentation, and tolerance. 

We see pragmatism at work today when the United States Office of Management and Budget “scores” a tax proposal or a medical bill. When a corporate executive demands a cost benefit analysis, he is thinking pragmatically. Contemporary jurist Richard Posner makes the law pragmatic as he connects it to economics in his 2003 book Law, Pragmatism, and Democracy. “The devil is in the details” has become a cliché, reflecting our faith in facts, utility, and common sense as well as the infusion of pragmatism into all areas of American life. 

Pragmatism had another benefit. It allowed for God. James was always interested in religion and believed in its importance, encouraging his sons to attend Harvard’s early morning services. He confessed he had no experience of God, but he respected those who did. In the age of Darwin, he discovered in pragmatism a weapon to legitimate religious belief and unveiled his arguments in an 1896 lecture, “The Will to Believe.” (He told Henry it should have been titled “The Right to Believe.”) If, for an individual, faith leads to peace and security, banishes loneliness, increases endurance, and improves behavior, it can be said to be true for that individual. In all areas of life, we are acting on insufficient evidence. If religion increased happiness, encouraged ethical behavior, and offered eternal life, why not gamble?

James followed up “The Will to Believe” with 20 lectures delivered in Edinburgh, Scotland, and published in 1902 in a book he titled The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature. Written when James was suffering from heart failure, Varieties became a best-seller and his most influential work. It stays in print today. 

In order to defend religious belief, James needed to understand it. He collected narratives of despair, accounts of mystical contacts, and descriptions of ecstasy. He offered the poetry of the “healthy-minded” soul, Walt Whitman, and the lament of a “sick soul,” Leo Tolstoy. He quoted Jonathan Edwards and Blaise Pascal and referenced Buddhists, Muslims, and Quakers. He included stories of men saved from tobacco, drink, and lust, of mystics energized by contact with a higher power, of missionaries who nursed the sick. “Every sort of energy and endurance, of courage and capacity for handling life’s evils, is set free in those who have religious faith.” 

James describes how prayer can overcome melancholy, how confession eases guilt, and how sacrifice leads to serenity. Reminding us that “every individual existence goes out in a lonely spasm of helpless agony,” he describes religion’s most powerful appeal—the hope of an afterlife. Insisting that there are many kinds of consciousness, he sympathetically recorded the experiences of those who claimed contact with the unseen. Religion leads to “a larger, richer, more satisfying life,” adding zest, assuring safety, appealing to heroism. 

Discounting rationalists’ claim to preeminence, he restored emotion and feeling to the religious quest and to the mind itself. Sigmund Freud insisted that religion “consists in depressing the value of life”; James believed that religion enhanced life. For would-be and wavering believers, James makes a powerful case. For skeptics, he has little to say about religion’s contributions to fanaticism, superstition, and war.

James did criticize religious hysteria. While he addressed an appreciative audience of a few thousand in Edinburgh, evangelist Dwight Moody preached an “old-fashioned gospel” to hundreds of thousands all over America and Europe. Denouncing evolution and preaching damnation, James’s contemporary, Billy Sunday, a former baseball star, reached millions. 

Varieties remains for most believers a powerful defense against Karl Marx, who criticized religion as the opiate of the masses; against Freud, who dismissed religion as an illusion; and against contemporary writers, such as Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and the late Christopher Hitchens, known together as “The Four Horsemen of Atheism.” Bill Wilson, the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, read Varieties repeatedly. John Updike praised it in his 1999 essay “The Future of Faith,” as did A. N. Wilson in his book God’s Funeral.

In 1900, upper-class Americans found themselves in the middle of a crisis: neurasthenia, more commonly called weak nerves. The symptoms, according to its discoverer George Miller Beard, included depression, fatigue, and irritability. Its cause—stressful office work, crowded cities, new inventions, and rapid change. The James family suffered from neurasthenia, as did Theodore Roosevelt, who fled to the frontier, and Jane Addams, who embraced the downtrodden. Religion, justified by James, was one remedy, but there might be others: yoga, spiritualism, Christian Science, different levels of consciousness, different paths to serenity in an anxious age. 

James investigated these “mind cures.” He became friends with Leonora Piper, a celebrated spiritualist, and attended her séances. He served as president of the Society of Psychical Research. James never endorsed a particular cure, but he defended inquiries into the phenomena, a pursuit his colleagues derided for encouraging superstition. 

James did come up with his own form of mind cure in a series of lectures delivered in the decade before World War I. “The Energies of Men” delivered a bracing message: “Compared with what we ought to be, we are only half awake. Our fires are damped, our drafts are checked.” Citing examples of soldiers at war and civilians in the San Francisco earthquake, James argues that through necessity and will power we can all raise our energy levels and become more heroic.

James becomes a forerunner of the human-potential movement. Abraham Maslow credits James as an influence on his theory of self-actualization. Martin Seligman, the founder of positive psychology, praises James, as does Angela Duckworth, the author of the current best-seller Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance

The essay “On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings” criticizes men and women who are so self-absorbed that they take no interest in others. He also criticizes the cerebral pessimist who loses contact with nature and disdains the ordinary. Praising Whitman and Wordsworth, James pleads for empathy, tolerance, and gratitude. Biographer Robert Richardson cites this essay, James’s favorite, as one of the “defining documents of American democracy.” 

In “The Gospel of Relaxation,” James applies psychological insights to everyday concerns. Limit introspection: don’t become a prisoner of morbid feelings. To feel brave, act brave. To become cheerful, smile and laugh. A calm mind requires a sound body. The key to vitality is tennis, skating, bicycling, and, above all, healthy habits. James the Harvard scientist becomes a pioneer of the secular sermon and the upbeat self-help manual promising ways to gain control of our lives, the forerunner of 45,000 self-help books now in print. 

In these popular essays, James revealed his ability to penetrate to the heart of a matter with a memorable phrase. What motivates men? “How to gain, how to keep, how to recover happiness is in fact for most men at all time the secret motive of all they do, and of all they are willing to endure.” Why go to college? “The best claim that a college education can possibly make . . . is this: that it should help you to know a good man when you see him.” In his rebuke of rationalists, he says, “Our emotions, our temperaments, and our current states of mind do affect our ideas. We cannot finally separate the thinker from the thought.” The purpose of life: “There is but one unconditional commandment, which is that we should seek incessantly, with fear and trembling, so to vote and to act as to bring about the very largest total universe of good which we can see.” 

James not only urged personal transformation, but also spoke out against the evils of the day: alcoholism, lynching, racism, and, above all, war. “History is a bath of blood,” he wrote in 1910. The Spanish-American War of 1898 had disillusioned him. The invasion of the Philippines that followed appalled him and inspired a famous essay distributed to millions of readers, “The Moral Equivalent of War.” James accepted, as a convert to evolutionary psychology, that pugnacity, pride, and patriotism were innate; but he argued that aggression could be rechanneled and that civilian conscription might replace military conscription. Privileged youth could fight nature instead of nations, could serve the community, and could find romance in fishing fleets and freight cars. “The martial type of character can be bred without war.”

In 1898 James climbed Mount Marcy, New York State’s highest peak, and strained his heart. He never recovered his health. Despite his physical deterioration, he continued to work and, during the next eleven years, wrote the two classics, Varieties and Pragmatism. Freud, who met James in 1909, said he hoped to be as fearless as James “in the face of approaching death.” James died a year later, and his passing was noted in newspapers all over America.

William James reminds us “a philosophy is the expression of a man’s intimate character.” After his death, Henry wrote that he would miss his brother’s “inexhaustible company . . . originality, the whole unspeakably vivid and beautiful presence of him.” James left behind hundreds of letters to family, students, and fellow academics. They reveal an attractive personality: spontaneous, witty, playful, humane, tolerant, and public-spirited. He was a man who turned his neuroses into accomplishment. 

What is his legacy?

William James took philosophy out of the academy and into the street. In memorable sentences, he made philosophy useful to ordinary citizens who wished to understand their minds and to improve their lives. He turned psychology into a science, inventing the notion of “stream of consciousness,” suggesting the brain was a dynamic, vital organ. He popularized pragmatism, a particularly American way of problem solving, useful to policymakers and ordinary citizens today. He legitimized religious belief, bringing solace to an America perplexed by Darwinism. To Americans plagued by nervous exhaustion, he preached energy, action, and optimism. And in the early years of the twentieth century, he wrote stinging denunciations of imperialism, trying to explain and extirpate human violence and aggression in a world drifting toward catastrophe. 

About the Author

Peter Gibbon is a senior research fellow at the Boston University School of Education and the author of A Call to Heroism: Renewing America’s Vision of Greatness (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2002). He has directed four Teaching American History programs and was the director of three NEH Summer Seminars on “Philosophers of Education: Major Thinkers from the Enlightenment to the Present.”

Sources

Sources: William James: Writings 1878–1899, Library of America, 1992; William James: Writings 1902–1910, Library of America, 1988; Jacques Barzun, A Stroll with William James, University of Chicago Press, 1983; Robert D. Richardson, William James: In the Maelstrom of American Modernism, Houghton Mifflin Company, 2006; Linda Simon, Genuine Reality: A Life of William James, Harcourt Brace & Company, 1998.

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