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102 of 105 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Masterpiece
"When a thing is new, people say: 'It is not true'.
Later, when its truth becomes obvious, they say: 'It's not important.'
Finally, when its importance cannot be denied, they say 'Anyway, it's not new.'"
William James

Well, I admit to being completely fascinated with great early experimental psychologists like William James and Gustav Fechner...
Published on November 9, 2006 by David H. Peterzell PhD PhD

0 of 19 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars More than you ever wanted to know about William James
This book has thousands of little details about the life of William James. It also has a bit of psychology and philosophy too! Read it if you have a few hours you want to kill.
Published on June 14, 2012 by Citris1

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102 of 105 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Masterpiece, November 9, 2006
David H. Peterzell PhD PhD (Boulder, CO United States) - See all my reviews
"When a thing is new, people say: 'It is not true'.
Later, when its truth becomes obvious, they say: 'It's not important.'
Finally, when its importance cannot be denied, they say 'Anyway, it's not new.'"
William James

Well, I admit to being completely fascinated with great early experimental psychologists like William James and Gustav Fechner. While modern psychology honors these thinkers, they usually neglect to look deeply into their great experimental and non-experimental ideas.

I hope that this remarkable and important book gets the attention it deserves, and I hope that my generation will discover the brilliance of William James. Richardson has brought James, his world, and his genius to life, along with the fascinating origins of modern psychological and metaphysical thought. Today, psychological science, philosophy, and the science of consciousness have come full circle, so James is as relevant today as 100 years ago.

In the preface of "William James; In the Maelstrom of American Modernism," Robert D. Richardson states that "This is an intellectual biography of William James. That is to say, it seeks to understand his life through his work, not the other way around. It is primarily narrative, aiming more to present his life than to analyze or explain it." With this humble thesis statement, Richardson understates one of the crowning achievements of his book. The book succeeds in portraying James' multifaceted, vibrant, and strong personality, thus explaining the great and passionate ideas that emanated from this source.

Toward the end of the book (p. 473; California Dreaming), Richardson discusses James' 4-part personality, referring to Barton Perry's (1935) analysis of James. "In some intricate way, James appears to have been, at bottom, both healthy-minded and a sick soul, both tender and tough-minded. Ralph Barton Perry, James' student and biographer, closes his splendid account by identifying four William Jameses. There was first of all `the neurasthenic James.' Then there was `the radiant James, vivid, gay, loving, compassionate, and sensitive.' To this Perry adds a third James, for whom he has no easy label but who might be considered as the conditional James or the ever-not-quite James, whose important qualities of live are `active tension, uncertainty, predictability, extemporized adaptation, risk, change, anarchy, unpretentiousness, and naturalness." The fourth James, Perry says, was "the James of experience and discipline ... the man of the world.' Cosmopolitan James, perhaps." I was struck by the fact that, while Perry's important work discussed the personalities, it was Richardson who has presented these personalities with a vividness that implies a deep analysis and understanding of James' psyche. "...The fundamental condition of his life was, now [at sixty] and always, torn-to-pieces-hood. But the pieces were never just thrown to the winds. They remained loosely if oddly clumped together, never completely unified, but all on the same shelf. Perhaps Leo Stein, brother of Gertrude, said it best: `The world which [William James] perceived was a multitudinous one. He never lost the sense of the thing, and yet never lost himself in it. So he became the richest interpreter of that of which he was so rich a part." Richardson's deep analysis of James emerges throughout the book.

Richardson's empathy with James - his ability see and think as James once did - is a second crowning achievement of this book. Like many biographers, Richardson has read what James wrote and said, including letters and other correspondences. But Richardson has made a point to read what James read, to fully understand the ideas that captured James' imagination. Furthermore, he has written biographies of Emerson and Thoreau, two great authors who influenced James significantly.

Perhaps a third, and related, crowning achievement of this book is its ability to put James' ideas in historical context; to link the ideas to themes that pervaded the 19th and 20th centuries. For instance, "He took as his starting point the feeling with which everyone is familiar: `Most of us feel as if we lived habitually with a sort of cloud weighing on us, below our highest notch of clearness in discernment, sureness in reasoning, or firmness in deciding. Compared to what we ought to be, we are only half awake. Our fires are damped, our drafts are checked,' Whatever this subject should be called in clinical psychology - James called it dynamogenics - it is the long-standing American interest in awakening to new life and new power, the great theme of Thoreau and Emerson and whitman, the great theme too of Jonathan Edwards, now carried to the new American century by William James." (p. 489)

I had hoped to read about James' interactions with some of his great students (e.g., Thorndike, who conducted his famous puzzle-box experiments in James' house). But I found much of what I hoped for. I was especially interested in reading about James' interpretations of Gustav Fechner's work. Although James seems to have dismissed Fechner's psychophysical laws as "too mechanical" (along with laws of thermodynamics, among other things), his fascination with Fechner's ideas is explained toward the end of the book.

There are some other recent sources on James that are worth noting. To be sure, James' deceptively stern visage can be found in modern books on the history of psychology, and these books often include a brief summary of James' work and ideas. Gerald Myers (1986) offers "William James: His life and thought" is another relatively recent "must read." Take a look at Emory University's online resources featuring James. You'll find plenty of materials, including quite a few interesting articles and pictures (e.g., Albert Bandura on James's stay at Stanford). Ken Wilber (of Integral Psychology fame) and B. Alan Wallace (Santa Barbara Institute for Consciousness Studies; Mind and Life Institute) have written and spoken extensively in recent years about James' metaphysical ideas. Wallace has just published a book entitled "Contemplative Science" which features James prominently.

So... I highly recommend this intellectual biography of William James. I loved this book!
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54 of 55 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Wonderful, November 21, 2006
meadowreader (Sandia Park, NM USA) - See all my reviews
This is a wonderfully written biography of a giant in American intellectual history, a book (and a life) that really can't be adequately summarized in a short review. Richardson has a comprehensive view of the historical era in which William James emerged, having previously published biographies of Emerson and Thoreau. The book is filled with interesting historical tidbits, such as the fact that Harvard had no separate Psychology Department until 1934, and a sketch of the miserable state of medical education in the late 19th Century, when not even a high school diploma was required. We see the brilliant Charles Peirce unable to make a living, and finally rescued by James and other of his friends from near starvation. Richardson frequently gives us the current value of dollar amounts from the earlier time, which adds valuable perspective. It is worth knowing that James's $5,000 Harvard salary, an amount that sounds puny, was the equivalent of $100,000 today.

William James was a famously late bloomer, but during that casting-about time he was hardly idle. He read very widely, was a talented artist, traveled constantly (including up the Amazon with Agassiz), became fluent in French and German, and got an MD degree among much else. His interest and training in physiology made him sensitive to the continuities between animals and human beings, and receptive to Darwin's evolutionary theory. But he also put great emphasis on the discontinuities; the example of a dog listening to a symphony was a favorite analogy to suggest the limits of our possible human understanding of the universe.

When William James died from heart failure in his late 60s, it was said that he had literally worn himself out. Santayana described James's personal vitality as "similar to nobody else." European travel, hiking and mountain climbing, experimenting with mysticism and psychoactive drugs, forming crushes on young women (to his wife's dismay), taking full teaching loads and large classes at Harvard, churning out articles and books, giving lectures to enthusiastic public audiences -- just reading about this man's doings is enough to make any normal person feel like a slacker of the worst kind. James lived in the world as an intensely active, curious, fully engaged participant; he somehow even managed to be in Palo Alto when the San Francisco earthquake hit. His intermittant bouts of ill health make it all that much more remarkable.

James was a psychologist, philosopher, and humanist. His psychology was inclusive, expansive, open-ended, and rejecting of all orthodoxies or closures of subject matter or method. For James, psychology included every possibility of human action and consciousness. The luminaries of the time that he knew, corresponded with, or met is far too long to reproduce. But it was an eclectic group, from Mach to Bergson, Jung to Russell, Chesterton to Leonora Piper, the famous medium. The writer Henry James was, of course, his younger brother.

If there was one overriding concern in James's intellectual history, it was his fascination with religion and the possibility of realms of human experience that are not captured by logic and empirical observation, experiences that come as feelings and hints, but which seem impossible to nail down scientifically. In relation to the universe, we are, he thought, perhaps like that dog who hears the symphony but who lacks the aesthetic sensibility to fathom its meaning. Although he said he could not speak from his own experience (it's unclear whether he ever had any first-hand religious experience), James focused on religion as personal experience, not as a social institution or body of dogma. He was intensely interested in the phenomenon of religious conversion, by which an individual's life was suddenly altered as through a kind of re-birth. The approach developed by Alcoholics Anonymous was inspired by James's descriptions of the life-changing effects of religious conversion. (James was always interested in practical applications; for example, his series of lectures for teachers was highly influential in his day.)

James is most identified today with Pragmatism, a doctrine he set out in the last decade of his life. Among philosophers, truth is usually seen as a matter of justification that flows from first principles of some kind. For James, all such accounts of truth smack of an argument from design, a vast over-emphasis on the importance of origins. James's Pragmatism, in contrast, is Darwinian: truth will show itself as it is tested in practice, and where it came from is a matter of indifference. If the dog won't hunt, who cares about its pedigree? That view was later common among philosophers of science, including Popper and, in its most extreme form, Feyerabend.

Pragmatism can be seen as one front in James's long fight against the neo-Hegelian idealists, like Royce and Bradley, with their posited Absolute, a war of liberation against the "imperial absolutists" and their rationalistic systems. And James did not exempt religion from the pragmatic test, arguing that people want both science and religion, and they want both for the desirable results they provide in their everyday lives. Thus James argued for the utility of the pragmatic approach itself, and for that reason he dedicated his book on the subject to the great Utilitarian, John Stuart Mill.

An exemplary life, recounted in an exemplary biography. Highest recommendation.
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22 of 22 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An Exceptional Biography of William James, January 9, 2007
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William James (1842-1910) made major contributions in the areas of philosophy, psychology, and the study of religion--yet we don't hear too much about him these days. Of course, the discussion of his more famous brother, Henry James, the novelist, is on-going. This book (along with Linda Simon's earlier "Genuine Reality: A Life of WJ") should do much to reintroduce this astoundingly talented figure to the current generation.
The author previously produced probably the definitive studies of Emerson and Thoreau. He spent a decade on this volume, and its shows. His approach is to understand James' "life through his work, not the other way around." What this means is that the book continually manifests a dual focus: WJ's life and WJ's intellectual pursuits and writings. The analysis is extremely detailed and comprehensive, the research phenomenal--and given the nearly 600 pages of text and notes, Richardson obviously was in no hurry to tell WJ's story.

However, a prospective reader should be warned that James dealt with and developed a number of complex and challenging ideas and areas. And Richardson is just as determined to analyze these topics as he is to do justice to WJ's life. Or, put differently, unless the reader is well versed in this subject matter, it can be difficult going at times. However, given the author's clarity of exposition, I found it easy to skim through these difficult passages and concentrate on the areas more familiar to me, and still reap the full benefits of Richardson's insights. So this fine book is there to provide as much detail and depth as to WJ's professional interests and writings as the reader is desirous of probing. In short, it is all there in this one book, for those who really want to get into WJ (including his interest in spiritualism). I found it helpful to keep handy the outstanding two volume Library of America collection of WJ's writings. A truly monumental contribution by Richardson and absolute "must reading" for anyone seriously interested in William James.
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25 of 27 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Masterful Biography ... Truly an Embarrassment of Riches, December 24, 2006
An embarrassment of riches, Robert D. Richardson's "William James: In the Maelstrom of American Modernism" is the despair of the literary critic. There's so much covered here that one cannot, in a brief review, do full justice to this definitive, magisterial work by a master biographer.

The author of "Myth and Literature in the American Renaissance" (1978), "Henry Thoreau: The Life of the Mind" (1986), and "Emerson: The Mind on Fire" (1995), Richardson spent ten years researching and writing "William James."

Drawing on a vast number of unpublished journals, letters, and family records, Richardson presents an impressive chronicle of the life and work of a seminal thinker who was a voracious reader, "half scientist and half artist," a lifelong seeker of truth), and, as Richardson puts it "[a man] who made major contributions in at least five fields--psychology, philosophy, religious studies, teaching, and literature."

William James (1842-1910) is best known for three works: "The Principles of Psychology" (1890), which the philosopher George Santayana consider his best effort; "The Varieties of Religious Experience" (1902), and "Pragmatism" (1907). His other works include "The Will to Believe and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy" (1897), "A Pluralistic Universe" (1909), and, published posthumously, "Essays in Radical Empiricism" (1912).

In "Song of Myself," Walt Whitman, one of James's favorite poets, wrote: "Do I contradict myself? Very well, the I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes." James, like Whitman was "large"; he contained multitudes.

As a "radical empiricist," James was always eager to keep as many doors and windows open as possible. Indeed, writes Richardson, "the very definition of radical empiricism [is that] nothing that is experienced can be excluded from consideration."

Richardson points out that James's radical empiricism included three main ideas: (1) consciousness is a process and only a process; (2) what we call objects are really bundles of relations; and (3) all we have to work with, think about, or live with is what we somehow experience."

To many modern and postmodern readers, James's thought appears to be contradictory. Deeply convinced of the truth of Darwin's theory of evolution, he was also open to the possibility of psychic phenomena, mental telepathy, mind cure, and various manifestations of the religious mentality.

James reminds one of the Civil War soldier who, wearing a blue coat and gray trousers, was shot at by both sides. Richardson writes, "[James] is too religious for the unbelievers and not religious enough for the believers."

In commenting on James's "The Varieties of Religious Experience," Richardson writes: "The book was and is a standing affront to people committed to defending the particulars of their own religion as the best, if not the only, variety, but it cheered many, on the other hand, who had become disillusioned with institutional religion."

Although in general he preferred a "both/and" rather than an "either/or" approach to life, James identified himself with one side of what may be called the philosophical divide: he stood with Heraclitus, Aristotle, Spinoza, and Bergson and opposed Plato, Descartes, Kant, and Hegel. And, although Richardson does not say so, one is impressed by multiple similarities in the philosophy of James and Friedrich Nietzsche.

In other words, James rejected Plato's "Real World" of Ideal Forms, denied the Cartesian dualism of subject and object, disbelieved in Kant's rationalistic approach to metaphysics and ethics, and attacked Hegel's dialectical method and his optimistic belief in the progressive march of the Absolute in history and society.

Richardson points out that, whereas James is often thought of as a psychologist and philosopher (he certainly was), one must not forget the most important fact about him: "Science was central for James. All his formal education, his interest in the natural world, in Darwin, in chemistry, in comparative anatomy, and in physiology gave him a permanent connection to science that he never abandoned."

While it is true that James spent a lot of time and energy investigating psychic phenomena and religious claims, "James was always firm in insisting that he had not himself had mystical experiences; he was scrupulous to claim that he was just a seeker, never that he had found or seen the truth."

Woven into Richardson's account of James' intellectual life--James was an instructor in anatomy and physiology and later a professor of psychology and professor of philosophy at Harvard for 34 years (1873-1907)--is a wealth of information concerning James' parents, siblings, wife, and children; and the famous people whom James' knew and influenced.

In Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche wrote, ""Gradually it has become clear to me what every great philosophy so far has been: namely, the personal confession of its author and a kind of involuntary and unconscious memoir." James (and Carl Jung) agreed with this assertion--that every philosophical (and psychology) theory is basically the personal confession of its author.

Reading Richardson's detailed account of James' family life and friends, his supporters and detractors, helps us better understand James' psychological and philosophical odyssey--his doubts and denials, beliefs and assertions.

One of my friends coined the word "spirmaturgy," meaning that the universe--composed of energy, matter, and spirit--is a living, evolving reality. I suspect William James would approve.
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14 of 14 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Wonderful Book About A Man Who Lived in The Stream, January 22, 2007
This is simply the best book about the begining of American psychology. It tells about how James moved psychology from a "nasty little science" into a respectable profession aimed at practical use and clinical utility for any who could benefit from it. This book shows how James merged his empirical sciences with his deep love of philosophy to help give rise to the modern American thought of putting knowledge to use. James would say that worrying if the color blue is the same experience for all observers was a waste of time, thought, and energy. He rejected the European study of introspection and desired to use the scientific method to study everything, but yet realized that science may only end up being a small slice of what is really governing the universe. His views on free will are fascinating. He at some level, believes there is no free will, yet insists that we should all live as if there were - even if we know it's mere illusion - it's an illusion worth investing ourselves into. The famous quote that one should "..act as if they have faith and then faith will be given to them." is an inspiring message that has helped so many endure and believe in the "will" to change one's self by changing our thoughts. He comments that the greatest discovery of his generation was that a man could change himself by changing his attitudes and beliefs and in-turn those new beliefs begin to possess us and we become what we "will" ourselves to become.

Do not be put off by the length of this book. It's a very easy read and is arranged so that you can shift from place to place and not lose anything by bouncing around. James' idea of the "Stream of Consciousness" is so well a part of our culture it's hard to believe we once thought otherwise. I am a psychologist and would recommend this book to anyone who wants to see how the Mental Health movement began with James and his demanding that science must benefit if it is to be worthy of our investigation. His radical empiricism is the basis for so much of what we take as "proof" of facts. Yet he warns not to fall in love with the scientific method, lest we miss a rare non-repeating miracle. He was, indeed, the very embodiment of that thought - a rare man whose gave us such wonderful tools and thoughts that he still speaks to us almost 100 years after his death - I call that miraculous. I hope you enjoy this book and I recommend it without reservation.
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13 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Don't Read This In Public., February 26, 2008
This review is from: William James: In the Maelstrom of American Modernism (Paperback)
Richardson's biographies of Thoreau and Emerson are two of the best books I've encountered in my life of voracious reading and this is one is just as wondrous. I cannot read any of these books in public, because they all make me want to weep and clutch my chest and shout, "At last! Everything has been revealed!"

I wish I could explain why Richardson's biographies are different from anyone else's. It's not just an artful piling up of delightful and distressing facts. Instead it's like the doorbell rings and you have a new best friend: William James. There's something magical and occult about this. It's not like he went to the research library, it's like he drew mystic diagrams on the floor.

Richardson writes that one of James' gifts was "his uncanny ability to pick up redemptive ideas from his reading." And it is Richardson's gift too, to fill each page with life-giving ideas. These biographies are as purely inspirational as a strong Lao coffee with sweetened condensed milk. Reading them makes me prone to fits of euphoria.

Richardson points toward the sources of James' genius-- one of the most important of which was James' own depression and heartbreak. He writes, "James had a remarkable capacity to convert misery and unhappiness into intellectual and emotional openness and growth. It is almost as though trouble was for him a precondition for insight." How hopeful that is!

Richardson's compassion for his subject spills out, somehow, to the reader, and makes one feel that one's own nonsense and bleakness do not render one disqualified for a whole human life. What more can I ask for?
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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars What a Terrific Biography!, March 19, 2007
Uitlander (Upstate New York) - See all my reviews
Robert Richardson has written a masterful biography. It is hard to imagine how it could be improved upon and it deserves recognition as the essential study of America's best known philosopher. There are still a few young people feeling their way through life who remind me of the youthful William James. W.J. really did not amount to much til he was past 40. His youth was a confusing matrix of indecision, false starts and immobilizing depression. How apt that James did not disparage the popular self-help writers of his day. (One of his endearing traits was his willingness to listen to rivals, opponents and crackpots.) I think Richardson's biography will make a terrific self-help book for young Jamesian types.

Richardson calls his book an intellectual biography. By that, he means to show how James's life can be understood through his work. He specifically states in the prologue it is not to be interpreted the other way round. Clearly, James's life was affected by his own thought and writing. After he achieved recognition, he was able to more effectively control his daemons, rise above his seasonal existential crises and come to embody the actualized voice of American philosophy. However, the James epistomology is pre-Freudian. He never acknowledged that the unconscious could conduct its own guerrilla attacks on life and definitively shape experience. His early life seems especially laden with familial burdens that threatened to marginalize his life and reputation. In fact, James's all consuming adoption of empirical interpretations may have been a reaction to his father's over-idealized religious tracts. Philosophically, W.J. turned out about 180 degrees removed from his dear old dad. Richardson remains mum on whether James ever acknowledged the role of polarity. More than anything however, the author demonstrates how James's writing was influenced by his own history- i.e. he turned his own experience into philosophy.

It is reasonable to expect a biography to touch upon every important theme in his subject's published works. James spent two thirds of his life awaiting his genius, so we don't hear about his formal philosophy til late in the book. I am no authority on the James canon, but I think everything I ever read by him or about him was addressed by Richardson. I am content that the intellectual issues were sufficiently aired. Of course, W.J.'s prose was not highly systemitized. (Outlines are for idealist philosophers.) Indeed it is to his enduring worth that all his tracts were infused with rhetorical panache. Richardson notes that Rebecca West observed that "one of the James brothers grew up to write fiction as though it were philosophy, and the other to write philosophy as though it were fiction." R.R. does a great job of limning the loving/distant relationship between William and Henry. In fact, all his friendships are given prominence, and my curiosity has been stirred over several lesser known colleagues. In conclusion, this is the most satisfying biography I've read in a long time. It will be enjoyed by all manner of psychologists, philosophers and intellectual historians.
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14 of 15 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars thorough, clear, well-researched, lively, January 26, 2007
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I teach a graduate class on the life and thought of William James, and I've been recommending this book to my students ever since it came out. The author organizes a huge mass of facts about America's first great psychologist, but in a way that involves the reader deeply in James's unfolding story. Richardson also brings to light how James's interest in psychology--not the associationist-mechanical stuff but psychology as a way of knowing and being--never died despite all attempts over time to make James over into a lifelong philosopher. All in all, a seminal work on one of the greatest psychological thinkers of all time, a brilliant pragmatist and Promethean visionary who hiked and loped over ground later covered by Wundt, Jung, the humanists, the phenomenologists, and many others.
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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Ever Not Quite, February 20, 2007
Robert Richardson characterizes his splendid biography of William James (1842 -- 1910) as seeking "to understand his life through his work, not the other way around." Richardson succeeds admirably in giving the reader the thought of William James in the many fields to which he made seminal contributions: psychology, religious studies, philosophy, pedagogy, and literature. He also offers an inspiring picture of James the man. Indeed, as Richardson shows, James's life is closely intertwined with his thought. Richardson taught for many years at the University of North Carolina and is currently an independent scholar. He has written biographies of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry Thoreau together with this biography of William James.

Richardson's book is written in five broad parts which subsume ninety short and readable individual sections. The first two parts of the book cover James's "Zigzag" childhood as his family, under his father, the redoubtable Henry James, Sr. crossed the Atlantic Ocean back and forth many times in search of education. James's relationship with his astonishing family, which Richardson calls the "James nation" -- his father and mother, novelist brother Henry, sister Annie, and brothers Garth and Wilkie form one of the motifs of this book.

As a young man WilliamJames was prone to ill-health, depression, and feeling of purposelessness. More than once, he considered suicide. These traits remained with him throughout life as James fought to control them and turn them to his advantage through effort, activity and will. Famously, James read the French philosopher Renouvier in 1870 which inspired him to conclude that "Our first act of freedom, if we are free, ought in all inward propriety to be to affirm that we are free." James subsequent courtship of and marriage to Alice Gibbens and his attainment of a teaching position at Harvard further committed him to a life of purposeful activity and to a confidence in himself.

The remaining three parts of Richardson's book center, respectively, upon James's great two-volume "Principles of Psychology" of 1890, his "Varieties of Religious Experience" of 1902, and, late in life, his work as a philosopher in his development of pragmatism, radical empiricism and pluralism. Richardson admirably ties James's work together to show how the philosophy arose from James's early interest in physiology and anatomy. James did revolutionary work in developing the physical basis of mental states and feelings. His interest in a full exploration of experience, together with his reading of the works of his father, led him as well to a feeling for religion and to human activity on the vision that what was noblest in man was mirrored in the universe. Richardson quotes the following passage from James as the epigraph to his book:

"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."

James large works and famous lecture series, such as the "Varieties", "Pragmatism" and "A Pluralistic Universe" are given close attention as are many of James's essays and lesser-known works. I enjoyed reading about James's first book in which he summarized his father's religious beliefs in the course of an introductory essay of over 100 pages.

Richardson aptly relates James to American intellectual currents, exemplified by Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, Melville, Holmes, Royce, Charles Peirce, and many others. He portrays James's thought as forward-looking, activist, pluralist, and based upon an openness to all forms of human experience -- including, notoriously, spiritualism. Richardson describes James as a founder of modernism in his teaching on the flow of consciousness. He is certainly correct about this, but it is also true that James's thought as it developed was highly metaphysical and speculative, much more so than in a great deal of contemporary philosophical thought. Richardson makes the apt point that in his emphasis of constant change and flow, James followed in the path of Heraclitus, the obscure but fascinating pre-Socratic philosopher. At many points in his study, Richardson suggests that James's primary achievement was in providing an answer to Plato and to the world of fixity, completeness, and eternal nonphysical ideas.

In 1910, shortly before his death, James wrote an essay called "A Pluralistic Mystic" about his long-time friend Benjamin Paul Blood, an eccentric philosopher, poet and mystic from upstate New York who was among the first to experiment with mind-altering drugs. Blood had written that reality and experience could never be captured by any formula:

[t]he slow round of the engraver's lathe gains but the breadth of a hair, but the difference is distributed back over the whole curve, never an instant true -- ever not quite."

In his essay on Blood, James made the phrase "ever not quite" his own. In summing up his life work in the essay, James joined cause with his subject, Blood, and concluded in language inspiring, fiery, and extravagant: "Let my last word, then, speaking in the name of intellectual philsophy, be his work: -- There is no conclusion. What has been concluded, that we might conclude in regard to it? There are no fortunes to be told, and there is no advice to be given. -- Farewell!"

Richardson has written an inspiring and learned book about a great American thinker and about the promise of leading a life of purposeful activity. Those moved to read or to reread William James may wish to pursue the two large collections of his most famous writings available from the Library of America.

Robin Friedman
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars For A Popular Audience, Too, October 8, 2007
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This review is from: William James: In the Maelstrom of American Modernism (Paperback)
I need not repeat the summaries set forth below by other reviewers, since these explain both Richardson's method -- to tell the life story through the work -- and the essentials of James' theories. What I will say is that, even if you have no background in philosophy or psychology, you should read this brilliant, passionate biography. James wrote for a popular as well as a professional audience; he was open and curious to all experience, and wished to be inclusive rather than exclusive in disseminating his ideas. Richardson is clear and succinct in explaining James theories -- often in the man's own, crisp, evocative language and clarifying analogies. Moreover, the concepts that James developed have in many cases become part of our popular vocabulary, including through organizations such as Alcoholics Anonymous, which Richardson reports took inspiration from James' Gifford lectures, published in the U.S. as "The Varieties of Religious Experience."

I had not read James for many years but, since reading this biography, have purchased a collection of his writings and am re-reading many of his works. You will come away from "In the Maelstrom of American Modernism" with a better understanding of both American values and ideals, and the history of U.S. higher education. Most importantly, however, you will come away with enormous admiration for the radiant personality that was William James, or as Richardson exclaims (using italics, not caps) at the end of this great work, for "the SPIRIT the man." When I finished reading, I not only wanted to read William James; I was sorry that I had not known him or had him as a teacher. That's how good this book is -- for every reader.
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William James: In the Maelstrom of American Modernism
William James: In the Maelstrom of American Modernism by Robert D. Richardson (Paperback - September 14, 2007)
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