By the end of that same year, James’s neurological symptoms had become worse. His training in hard science was making it impossible for him to believe in human freedom and, thus, in the value of struggling for moral ideals; the despair of materialism was leading him to the depression of determinism. In a barely disguised case history in his Varieties of Religious Experience, he tells of visiting an asylum while he was a medical student, and seeing an epileptic patient whose condition had reduced him to an idiotic state. James could not dispel the realization that if universal determinism prevails, he could likewise sink into such a state, utterly incapable of preventing it (Varieties, pp. 135-136). His dread over the sense of life’s absolute insecurity pushed him to become a virtual invalid in his parents’ home. He considered suicide. By the spring of 1870, when James was twenty-eight years old, he experienced a critical moment while reading a treatment of human freedom by the French neo-Kantian Charles Renouvier. He discovered the solution to his problem in the act of will whereby he could commit himself to believing in his own freedom despite any lack of objective evidence. He started down the road to recovery, though the remainder of his life would be plagued by seemingly psychosomatic troubles (serious eye strain, mysterious back pains, digestive problems, and periods of exhaustion, as well as chronic mood swings, including times of brooding depression). Unfortunately, he still lacked a constructive career goal.
James hints at his religious concerns in his earliest essays andin The Principles, but they become more explicit in TheWill to Believe and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy(1897), Human Immortality: Two Supposed Objections to theDoctrine (1898), The Varieties of Religious Experience(1902) and A Pluralistic Universe (1909). James oscillatedbetween thinking that a “study in human nature” suchas Varieties could contribute to a “Science ofReligion” and the belief that religious experience involves analtogether supernatural domain, somehow inaccessible to science butaccessible to the individual human subject.
Born in New York City on January 11, 1842, William James was the oldest of the five children of Henry James, Sr., and Mary Walsh James. His oldest brother, Henry James, Jr., the renowned writer of fiction, was followed by two other brothers and a sister. The family frequently moved between America and Europe, the father having inherited an amount of money sufficient to allow him to enjoy the life of an intellectual. While growing up, William had a passion for drawing. Since he wanted to become a painter, the family moved to Newport, Rhode Island in 1860, where William studied with the leading American portraitist, William Morris Hunt. Although he had talent, he gave up this career goal in less than a year. He had decided that it was insufficient for him to do first-rate work. All this is indicative of three things: the family’s remarkable support for his aspirations; his own quest to achieve excellence; and his restless, indecisive difficulty in remaining committed to a career path.
In 1897, James’s first philosophical book, The Will to Believe and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy, was published, dedicated to Charles Sanders Peirce. The following year, at the University of California at Berkeley, he delivered a lecture, “Philosophical Conceptions and Practical Results,” which helped to launch pragmatism as a nationwide philosophical movement. In 1899, his Talks to Teachers on Psychology and to Students on Some of Life’s Ideals was published. Overworked at Harvard and jeopardizing his fragile health, he suffered a physical breakdown that same year. While recovering his health, he studied a wide range of accounts of religious experience and prepared his Gifford Lectures, which he delivered at the University of Edinburgh in 1901-02. These were published as The Varieties of Religious Experience in 1902 and proved to be quite successful, although James himself was displeased, believing them to contain too much reporting on facts and too little philosophical analysis.
From the introduction to William James's by Bruce Kuklick, p. xiv.
By the next year, James’s heart trouble left him so plagued by fatigue that normal activities became quite difficult. He was attempting to complete his textbook on Some Problems of Philosophy, but died on August 26, 1910. In 1911, his textbook, edited by his son Henry, and his Memories and Studies were posthumously published. In 1912, his Essays in Radical Empiricism was published, followed, in 1920, by some of his Collected Essays and Reviews and The Letters of William James, edited in two volumes by his son Henry. His writings have survived in part because of the provocative honesty of his ideas, but also because of the vibrant, sometimes racy, style in which he expressed them. In A Pluralistic Universe, he castigates philosophers who use technical jargon instead of clear, straightforward language. He practiced the spontaneous thinking and freshness of expression he advocates there (Universe, pp. 129-130). It has been said (by the novelist Rebecca West) that, while Henry James wrote fiction as though it were philosophy, his older brother, William, wrote philosophy in a colorful style typical of fiction.
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William James is considered by many to be the most insightful and stimulating of American philosophers, as well as the second of the three great pragmatists (the middle link between and ). As a professor of psychology and of philosophy at Harvard University, he became the most famous living American psychologist and later the most famous living American philosopher of his time. Avoiding the logically tight systems typical of European rationalists, such as the German idealists, he cobbled together a psychology rich in philosophical implications and a philosophy enriched by his psychological expertise. More specifically, his theory of the self and his view of human belief as oriented towards conscious action raised issues that required him to turn to philosophy. There he developed his pragmatic epistemology, which considers the meaning of ideas and the truth of beliefs not abstractly, but in terms of the practical difference they can make in people’s lives. He explored the implications of this theory in areas of religious belief, metaphysics, human freedom and moral values, and social philosophy. His contributions in these areas included critiques of long-standing philosophical positions on such issues as freedom vs. determinism, correspondence vs. coherence, and dualism vs. materialism, as well as a thorough analysis of a phenomenological understanding of the self and consciousness, a “forward-looking” conception of truth (based on validation and revisable experience), a thorough-going metaphysical pluralism, and a commitment to a full view of agency in connection with communal and social concerns. Thus he created one of the last great philosophical systems in Western thought, even if he did not live quite long enough to complete every aspect of it. The combination of his provocative ideas and his engaging writing style has contributed to the enduring impact of his work.
When James was 18 years of age he tried his hand at studying art, under the tutelage of William M. Hunt, an American painter of religious subjects. But he soon tired of it and the following year entered the Lawrence Scientific School of Harvard University. From courses in chemistry, , and similar subjects there, he went to the study of medicine in the Harvard Medical School; but he interrupted this study in order to accompany the eminent naturalist , in the capacity of assistant, on an expedition to the Amazon. There James’s health failed, and his duties irked him. He returned to the medical school for a term and then during 1867–68 went to Germany for courses with the physicist and physiologist , who formulated the law of the conservation of energy; with , a pathologist; with , the foremost experimentalist of 19th-century medicine; and with others. At the same time he read widely in the and philosophy then current, especially the writings of Charles , a Kantian Idealist and relativist.
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Even if philosophically interesting matters such as freedom vs. determinism cannot be scientifically resolved, some sort of epistemological methodology is needed if we are to avoid arbitrary conclusions. Whatever approach is chosen, it is clear that James repudiates rationalism, with its notions of a priori existential truths. He is particularly hostile to , which he identifies especially with Hegel and which he attacks in many of his essays (this identification leads him to be remarkably unfair to Kant, an earlier German idealist). As he makes clear in “The Sentiment of Rationality,” the personality of the would-be knower and various practical concerns are far too relevant to allow for such abstract intellectualism. The tradition of modern empiricism is more promising, yet too atomistic to allow us to move much beyond the knowledge of acquaintance to genuine comprehension (Will, pp. 63-67, 70, 75-77, 82-86, 89, 92). Fortunately, James had already learned about the pragmatic approach from .