William James

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 9)

Most successful biographies deal with men of action—politicians, soldiers, artists, and their ilk. Modern philosophers are seldom thought of as fit subjects for the medium. William James, however, is something of an exception to this rule. While certainly an important and complex philosopher, James was also a man of action, who tried to translate philosophy into a way of life and hoped to make his ideas accessible to the community at large. Naturally his atypical career, coupled with an attractive personality, has proved a magnet for numerous interpreters who have subjected James and his unusual family to intense scrutiny. Fortunately, Gerald Myers, in his study William James: His Life and Thought, provides an interesting contrast to the customary treatment. He resists the temptation to follow in the footsteps of Ralph Barton Perry, whose Pulitzer Prize-winning biography, The Thought and Character of William James (1935), dealt lovingly with James and began the fascination of writers with the man himself. Instead, Myers places his emphasis where it should be, on the most important part of any philosopher—his ideas. Myers’ book is not a typical biography; it is the biography of a mind.

Even though Myers’ primary efforts are directed at understanding what James actually believed rather than seeking the influences that created his beliefs, an attempt to understand one area of James becomes difficult if not impossible without coming to grips with the total James. Hence, the author begins his work with a typically biographical chapter on James’s life and career, providing the setting for the examination of the mind. While Myers has no intention of going deeply into the events of James’s life, his sketch does an admirable job of capturing the all-important dimension of personality. In addition to touching on the more familiar aspects of his subject’s background and the well-known influence of family, Myers uses materials unavailable to earlier biographers—in particular, a series of letters between James and his wife. He also provides a perceptive discussion of some of the more well-known and controversial points made by other biographers, adding his own interpretations.

Myers generally accepts the argument that James’s personality is a key to understanding his philosophy. James, according to this view, made philosophy a personal quest, his own private search for meaning in a world that often appeared meaningless. For Myers, the resulting ideas are “the spontaneous and immediate expression of his personality, for all to witness.” The pragmatist who stressed individualism and action as an important part of the philosopher’s effort to understand the world was also the man who fought an intense, personal battle to overcome physical illness and an imagined weakness of character. In private James would often struggle for small moral victories or personal triumphs of will. His public philosophy, in spite of its contradictions, became a tribute to humanity’s struggle for morality and the triumph of human will.

Myers’ fruitful analysis of James’s thought begins in the second chapter, on consciousness, followed by subsequent chapters dealing with specific philosophical topics—sensation and perception, space, time, memory, attention and will, emotion, thought, knowledge, reality, self, morality, and religion. The approach is not rigidly chronological, allowing the author to deal with and criticize the various aspects of James’s thought as a whole. The nature of James’s mental development, however, provides the opportunity for an evolutionary image which uses the famous text The Principles of Psychology (1890) as the foundation of James’s whole philosophical system.

In The Principles of Psychology, James is obviously the scientist attempting to place psychology on a firm empirical basis, yet, even here, the central tension within his personality between the modern man of science and the mystic is clearly at work. This tension was perhaps the driving force behind his desire to philosophize. It also meant that for James the ultimate answers lay not...

(The entire section is 1693 words.)