William James Centennial Celebration

On the centennial of the famed philosopher and psychologist’s death, his biographer Robert Richardson tells us why he continues to be an important thinker that we ignore at our peril.

William James’ body lies a-mouldering in the grave, but his words keep marching on. James, the great American philosopher, psychologist, and student of religion, author of The Principles of Psychology (1890) Pragmatism (1907) and The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902), died at his summer home in Chocorua, New Hampshire, on Aug 26, 1910, just a hundred years ago today. Brother of the novelist Henry James, and of the diarist Alice James, William James has several things to tell us that we still in 2010 don’t hear. In psychology, he taught that what we are pleased to call rationality is in fact a feeling, a feeling of fitness or rightness. He also taught that many of our emotions are the result, not the cause, of physical reactions (we are afraid because we run, not the other way round) and that mimicking, say, a smile or a friendly handshake will often produce a feeling of friendliness. In philosophy—or perhaps we should say at the junction between psychology and philosophy—James taught that we must awaken from our centuries-long Platonic dream of the supremacy of ideas to all else. James’ pragmatism is a philosophy of action. It is not the origin of a human action that matters so much as its results—all its results—are what matter. In his radical empiricism, it is experience that counts, but everyone’s experiences and all of our experiences must count. In religion then, we are not surprised to learn, James teaches that it is the religious experiences of individuals—not books or buildings, or creeds or clergy—that constitute real religion.

James worked at the intersections of psychology, philosophy, and religious studies. He was interested in the marginal and the vague as well as the central and obvious. He was more interested in consciousness than in the unconscious. He proposed—and here he seems to be daring us to follow him—that attention, will, and belief are three names for the same process. He understood that there are no universals, except possibly habit, that “enormous flywheel of society,” and he is our great prophet of the truth that there can be no one great permanent truth, but only the process of trueing, as a carpenter trues a board with a plane, or as a builder trues an upright with a plumb line.

James learned from Emerson that we must “give all to love,” must hold nothing back. He also would agree with Emerson’s observation that “life only avails, not the having lived. Power ceases in the instant of repose; it resides in the moment of transition from a past to a new state, in the shooting of the gulf, in the darting to an aim.”

James thought that the spirit might conceivably outlive the body. We must be grateful that his has.

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Robert Richardson is an independent scholar and recovering academic, who has written biographies of Thoreau, Emerson and William James. His most recent volume, an anthology called The Heart of William James, has just been published by Harvard University Press.