A Stroll with William James

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 12)

The title of Jacques Barzun’s book about the American philosopher and psychologist William James is disarming—unless one recalls that a stroll with an active nineteenth century man is likely to prove a good stiff hike by twentieth century standards. Mentally, William James and his novelist brother, Henry, were so extraordinarily active that a substantial effort is required to keep up with either of the Jameses. Nor has Barzun, long an astringent critic of modern American education and society, mellowed appreciably in this book, its title notwithstanding.

The elder of the two James brothers is known generally for devising the expression “stream of consciousness”; for his sibling rivalry with Henry (if the latter’s exhaustive biographer Leon Edel is to be credited); and for an insatiable curiosity which led him to climb a garden wall in order to sneak a glimpse of G. K. Chesterton. Barzun believes that the body of James’s work deserves to be better known; he himself knows James not in the manner of an academic man specializing in and regularly teaching him but as an admirer who has read and pondered his subject throughout a long adult life. He is also a historian interested in James’s relationship to the late Victorian world and to the twentieth century. One of his best chapters evokes the technological, social, and artistic context of James’s mature years, the 1890’s and 1900’s.

The author’s desire to demonstrate the usefulness of Jamesian thought today gains an argumentative edge from his awareness that others have found James useful in ways he regards as deplorable. He acknowledges that the behaviorist psychologists derive, in a perverse way, from James. He admits that his subject’s pragmatism, as interpreted by John Dewey at Columbia University (incidentally Barzun’s own university for nearly a half century), formed the basis of an educational revolution Barzun has long since lamented. Because James has few serious rivals as the most American thinker of the fin de siècle, the existence of such intellectual progeny should surprise no one, but Barzun is convinced that even James’s admirers have done an unusually thorough job of misinterpreting him and tarnishing his reputation.

Barzun begins his study with an anecdote: James literally strolling with two Harvard University students one day in 1890 and characteristically and spontaneously leaving them with something to think about. At forty-eight, James had absorbed a number of civilizing influences and become an extremely versatile man. His father, a theologian, social theorizer, and friend of Ralph Waldo Emerson, had opened many vistas to his children, not without the heat and dust of incessant travel. William had studied in England, France, and Germany; he had trained in art and medicine (Harvard having granted him a doctor of medicine degree in 1869); he had read voraciously in philosophy; he had taught anatomy, physiology, psychology, and philosophy at Harvard for nearly two decades. By 1890, he had squeezed out the time to write his first book. Barzun stands among those who regard it as James’s masterpiece.

To this book, The Principles of Psychology (1890), Barzun devotes the second chapter of A Stroll with William James. It is both a study of the mind and a display of mind. Something of its quality can be gauged by James’s own explanation of a later abridgement. By omitting such things as “polemics and history . . . metaphysical subtleties and digressions . . . all humor and pathos,” he observed whimsically, he had been able to produce a “pedagogic classic.” Like his brother, however, James is better remembered for what he put in than what he was able to leave out.

Barzun devotes subsequent chapters to several Jamesian keynotes: pragmatism (a term borrowed from C. S. Peirce but made thoroughly his own), radical empiricism, the will to believe, and religious experience. In addition to the rich historical chapter, “The Reign of William and Henry,” Barzun also offers a summation, unabashedly called “The Genius,” and an epilogue consisting of an anthology of parallels and analogues to James’s principal ideas of writers from Aristotle to Lewis Carroll.

In order to demonstrate the salubriousness of James’s approach to philosophic and scientific inquiry, Barzun mingles explication with arguments designed to establish the modern need for the benefits which Jamesian thought, properly...

(The entire section is 1830 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 12)

Choice. XXI, October, 1983, p. 258.

Christian Century. C, August 31, 1983, p. 787.

Christian Science Monitor. October 26, 1983, p. 21.

Chronicle of Higher Education. XXVI, March 2, 1983, p. 28.

Library Journal. CVIII, February 15, 1983, p. 399.

National Review. XXXV, September 16, 1983, p. 1148.

The New Republic. CLXXXVIII, May 9, 1983, p. 32.

The New York Times Book Review. LXXXVIII, May 29, 1983, p. 7.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXIII, January 21, 1983, p. 72.

Saturday Review. IX, June, 1983, p. 58.