William James’ most significant contributions to the literature of the essay were examples of “public philosophy” in the tradition of Emerson: informal exercises bringing academic insights to bear on public problems. While his major book-length studies—The Principles of Psychology (1890), The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902), and Pragmatism (1907)—outlined his understanding of the fundamentals of empirical psychology, the phenomenology of religion, and the philosophical method of “pragmatism,” the essays (with the notable exception of those collected in The Meaning of Truth  and the posthumously published Essays in Radical Empiricism ) were more concerned with popularizing his ideas than with perfecting them. James himself wondered late in his life whether the energy he had devoted to public education had been at the expense of a fully developed system of thought, complaining that it had been a “tragedy” that he, having had a”bridge” begun, had “stopped in the middle of an arch” (Letters of William James). His sense of his legacy was remarkably prescient: while his thought has had a lasting influence on American literary culture and public discourse, it has proven vulnerable to attack by professional psychologists and analytic philosophers.
The most influential of James’ popular essays translate his central psychological and philosophical tenets into practical advice for day-to-day living. Inspirational pieces like “The Will to Believe” (1896), “Is Life Worth Living?” (1895), “The Gospel of Relaxation” (1899), and “On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings” (1899) offer advice for coping with personal problems like depression and enervation, advice consistently mindful of a general public where religious faith and temperamental optimism have gone out of fashion. “The Will to Believe” is a précis of the central argument of The Varieties of Religious Experience: “a defense of our right to adopt a believing attitude in religious matters, in spite of the fact that our merely logical intellect may not have been coerced.”
Its Pascalian argument turns on the example of a man lost in a snowstorm, his very survival depending on a leap of faith, a dilemma that (along with James’ solution) echoes throughout modern literature (most famously in Robert Frost’s poem “The Road Not Taken”). The essay “Is Life Worth Living?” presents a series of arguments against suicide, judiciously organized to appeal first to the religious believer and then to the atheist. Its evenhandedness reflects a policy central to Jamesian pragmatism: a commitment to respecting “tender-minded” and “tough-minded” temperaments equally.
James offers more practical advice for overcoming depression in “The Gospel of Relaxation,” drawing from a theory of emotion developed with the Danish thinker Carl G.Lange and fully explicated in The Principles of Psychology. Since emotions have a physiological basis, it argues, the cure for depression rests in cultivating the physical signs of good cheer: the “sovereign voluntary path to cheerfulness” is “to sit up cheerfully, to look round cheerfully, and to act as if cheerfulness were already there.” In its persuasive arguments about the spiritual benefits of relaxation and “muscular vigor”— arguments repeated by motivational figures from John Dewey and Malcolm X to Norman Vincent Peale—the essay is a milestone in the history of self-help literature.
The essay “On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings,” finally, is vitally important for offsetting an impression the other essays give: that James encourages the fulfillment of selfinterest, regardless of its consequences for others. In language stripped of specific political reference, but designed to challenge the imperialistic policies of the McKinley administration (1897–1901), it emphasizes the importance of checking optimistic hypotheses and self-fulfilling prophecies through consultation with the other people whose lives they will affect. Whatever our own hopes for self-improvement, it counsels, we must “tolerate, respect, and indulge those whom we see harmless, interested and happy in their own ways, however unintelligible these may be to us.”
James’ style as an essayist reflects both his commitment to popular education and the essentials of the “pragmatic” approach to truth-making. In “Remarks on the Occasion of the Centenary of William James” (1942), James’ son, Henry James III, recalled his father’s contempt for “style that makes an affectation of learning and therewith desiccates and often obscures the thought”: a contempt whose positive side was an educator’s love of blunt statements, homely examples, and familiar forms of address. Other aspects of James’ style directly reflect Pragmatism’s correlation of “truths” with “hypotheses,” provisional theories whose capacity to “satisfy” is subject to an ongoing empirical test.
One is his frequent use of qualifying words and phrases: “if,” “as if,” “suppose.” Another is his habit of recounting testimonies and anecdotes: the best data available, from a pragmatist’s point of view, for verifying, or testing the efficacy of, propositions. Still another is his frequent use of prolepsis, or the anticipation of counterarguments: not for its usual rhetorical purpose of defeating such arguments, but for the pragmatist’s purpose of incorporating them into his developing “truth.” Finally, his open-minded and
practically oriented philosophy is reflected in his tendency to rely upon analogy and metaphor in place of more logical forms of argumentation. As James summarizes pragmatism’s sense of things in “The Will to Believe,” its only criteria for admitting a proposition into consideration are that it not be “impossible,” and that it be possible to “bring analogies to bear in its behalf.”
Despite the survival of James’ incitements to positive thinking in American popular culture, recent critical work has raised questions about the applicability of his advice across race, class, and gender lines. His suggestions, in particular, that happiness and success can be attained through the cultivation of “relaxation” and “muscular vigor,” have inspired the claim that his solutions were better suited to resolving the tedium vitae of the privileged young men of Harvard than the tougher problems faced by women, minorities, or the poor. Jarring claims like the one that “sufferings and hardships do not, as a rule, abate the love of life” (“Is Life Worth Living?”), or that “the strength of the British Empire lies in the strength of character of the individual Englishman, taken all alone by himself” (“The Gospel of Relaxation”), suggest that James was not immune to the kind of “blindness” he warned against. But if his faith in the transformative power of optimism underestimated certain social problems, his openmindedness toward religious faith and his conception of truth-making as a consultative process have been formative examples for some social activists. In contemporary America, Cornel West, the selfdescribed Christian-Marxist champion of African American rights, and “public philosopher” in his own right, has cited James’ work both as inspiration and as example.
See also Philosophical Essay
Born 11 January 1842 in New York City. Brother of the writer Henry James. Traveled with his family in Europe, studying there, 1857–60; studied art with William Morris Hunt, Newport, Rhode Island, 1860–61; Lawrence Scientific School, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1861–63, and Harvard Medical School, M.D., 1869.
Accompanied the Thayer Expedition to Brazil, 1865–66; traveled and studied in Germany, 1867–68. Taught physiology, philosophy, and psychology at Harvard University, 1872–1907, then emeritus. Married Alice Howe Gibbens, 1878: four sons and one daughter. Gifford Lecturer, University of Edinburgh, 1899–1901, lecturer, Lowell Institute, Boston, 1906, and Hibbert Lecturer, Manchester College, Oxford, 1908.
Awards: honorary degrees from seven universities.
Died in Chocorua, New Hampshire, 26 August 1910.
Essays and Related Prose
The Will to Believe, and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy, 1897
Talks to Teachers on Psychology, and to Students on Some of Life’s Ideals, 1899
The Varieties of Religious Experience (Gifford lectures), 1902
Pragmatism, a New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking: Popular Lectures on Philosophy, 1907
The Meaning of Truth: A Sequel to “Pragmatism”, 1907
A Pluralistic Universe (Hibbert lectures), 1909
Memories and Studies, 1911
Essays in Radical Empiricism, edited by Ralph Barton Perry, 1912
Selected Papers on Philosophy, edited by C.M.Bakewell, 1917
Collected Essays and Reviews, edited by Ralph Barton Perry, 1920
Essays on Faith and Morals, edited by Ralph Barton Perry, 1943
Essays in Pragmatism, edited by Alburey Castell, 1948
The Moral Equivalent of War, and Other Essays, and Selections from Some Problems of Philosophy, edited by John K.Roth, 1971
The Essential Writings, edited by Bruce W.Wilshire, 1971 A William James Reader, edited by Gay Wilson Allen, 1972 Selected Writings, edited by G.H.Bird, 1995
Other writings: philosophical works and much correspondence.
Collected works edition: Works (Harvard Edition), edited by Frederick H.Burkhardt, Fredson Bowers, and Ignas K.Skrupskelis, 1975– (in progress).
Skrupskelis, Ignas K., William James: A Reference Guide, Boston: Hall, 1977
Cotkin, George, William James, Public Philosopher, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990
Heddendorf, David, “Filling Out the What: William James, Josiah Royce and Metaphor,” American Transcendental Quarterly 2 (1988):125–38
Lentricchia, Frank, Ariel and the Police: Michel Foucault, William James, Wallace Stevens, Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1988
Myers, Gerald E., William James: His Life and Thought., New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 1986
Perry, Ralph Barton, The Thought and Character of William James, Boston: Little Brown, 2 vols., 1935
Posnock, Ross, The Trial of Curiosity: Henry James, William James, and the Challenge of Modernity, New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991
Seigfried, Charlene Haddock, William James’ Radical Reconstruction of Philosophy, Albany: State University of New York Press, 1990
Wernham, James C.S., James’ Will-to-Believe Doctrine: A Heretical View, Kingston, Ontario: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1987
West, Cornel, The American Evasion of Philosophy: A Genealogy of Pragmatism, Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1989
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