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William James in the Library of America
on January 4, 2007
The great philosopher and psychologist William James (1842 -- 1910) is best-known as the founder, with C.S. Peirce and John Dewey, of the distinctively American philosophy of pragmatism. James is that indeed, but he is much more as well. This volume of the Library of America series consists of five books and nineteen essays by James written between 1902 and 1910. (A separate Library of America volume includes James's earlier writing, including "Psychology, A Briefer Course" and the essay "The Will to Believe".) The volume will give the reader a feeling for the breadth of James's philosophical, scientific, and religious concerns. The volume is edited by Professor Bruce Kuklick of the University of Pennsylvania who has written extensively about James and about the history of American philosophy. In this volume, Kuklick provides an unusually thorough chronology of James's life to accompany James's texts.
For those readers with no prior familiarity with James, I suggest beginning with a brief essay "Answers to a Questionniare" (p. 1183) that James wrote in response to questions from a colleague at Harvard about the role of religion in life. In his answers, James briefly summarizes his theism and his conviction of the value of religious experience. He writes that "Religion means primarily a universe of spiritual relations surrounding the earthly practical ones, not merely relations of 'value,' but agencies and their activities". James says that his belief in immortality had increased over the years as he is "just getting fit to live." As to the authority of the Bible, James states that it is not his authority in religious matters. Rather, he describes it is "so human a book that I don't see how belief in its divine authorship can survive the reading of it."
This short questionnaire response provides a wedge into the over 1300 pages of text in this volume. James was trained as a physician and a scientist and was greatly impatient with what he viewed as philosophical abstractions. Yet religious concerns were at the heart of his thinking. James undertook the traditional philosophic attempt to reconcile the teachings of science with those of religion. His famous teaching of pragmatism was, as he stated in the first chapter of his book "Pragmatism" designed to to so. Other philosophical positions that James developed, including radical empiricism, pluralism, and meliorism were designed to honor the importance of human feeling and effort and to emphasize the large role of the spiritual in human life.
James long had the ambition of writing a systematic exposition of his philosophy in a book, but he never did so. (His final book, "Some Problems of Philosophy", published after his death was an attempt to do so, but it was left incomplete and sketchy. It is included in this volume). Thus, with the exception of "Some Problems" the books included in this collection are series of lectures that James delivered over the course of the years. They are beautifully written and aimed for the most part at an audience of nonspecialists. But, on the whole, the books consist more of suggestions and of paths for exploration than of detailed philosophical argumentation. Reading the books in this volume will show the reader how James's thought changed and developed over the years.
The first book in the volume, "The Varieties of Religious Experience" consists of the Gifford Lectures James delivered in Scotland at the turn of the Twentieth Century. The "Varieties" is still my favorite James book, with its unique combination of psychology and philosophy, as James attempt to explain the value of the religious life by describing the forms it takes in the lives of individuals from many times and places.
Probably the most famous single work of American philosophy was James's "Pragmatism" which again consists of a series of lectures delivered in New York City and Boston. In this book, James made high claims for the importance of philosophy and developed pragmatism as a method and as a philosophical theory of truth. In a subsequent book called "The Meaning of Truth", James gathered together thirteen of his essays, in addition to a Preface and two new essays, to try to explain in greater detail his theory of pragmatism and to answer objections to it. The "Meaning of Truth" is James's most difficult and technically dense book.
In his final book of lectures, "A Pluralistic Universe" James's thought turned in new and more speculative directions. The book continues James's longstanding attack on the absolute idealism, derived from Hegel, which was still preeminent in his day. James develops a philosophy he calls radical empiricism derived in part from the French philosopher Henri Bergson and in part from the German thinker Gustav Fechner. The book places limitations of the value of conceptual, scientific thinking looking instead to the stream of experience and the flow of human consciousness. In this book, James engages in speculative philosophy, adopts a form of idealism almost in spite of himself, and goes far beyond the pragmatism of "Pragmatism" and "A Theory of Truth". This book is James's fullest statement of his thought, and it does not always get the study it deserves.
As I mentioned, James left his final book, "Some Problems of Philosophy" incomplete, but what we have of it is a valuable complement to "A Pluralistic Universe." The essays in this volume cover a variety of topics, philosophical, psychological and otherwise, and, with the brief response to a questionnaire I mentioned at the outset of this review, provide a good approach to the longer works. I tend to like the more popularly-oriented of the essays, especially the great essay James wrote on "The Moral Equivalent of War." Again, this is an essay that newcomers to James need to read. The essay on "The True Harvard" has moving things to say about the intellectual life, and the "Address at the Centenary of Ralph Waldo Emerson" is a fitting tribute to its subject.
There is much to think and reflect about in this compilation of William James's later writings. His philosophy still has much to teach.