The Heart of William James

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Overview

On the one hundredth anniversary of the death of William James, Robert Richardson, author of the magisterial William James: In the Maelstrom of American Modernism, assembles a wide-ranging selection of essays and writings that reveal the evolution of James’s thought over time, especially as it was continually being shaped by the converging influences of psychology, philosophy, and religion throughout his life.

Proceeding chronologically, the volume begins with “What Is an Emotion,” James’s early, notable, and still controversial argument that many of our emotions follow from (rather than cause) physical or physiological reactions. The book concludes with “The Moral Equivalent of War,” one of the greatest anti-war pieces ever written, perhaps even more relevant now than when it was first published. In between, in essays on “The Dilemma of Determinism,” “The Hidden Self,” “Habit,” and “The Will”; in chapters from The Principles of Psychology and The Varieties of Religious Experience; and in such pieces as “On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings,” “What Makes a Life Significant,” and “Philosophical Conceptions and Practical Results,” we witness the evolution of James’s philosophical thinking, his pragmatism, and his radical empiricism. Throughout, Richardson’s deeply informed introductions place James’s work in its proper biographical, historical, and philosophical context.

In essay after essay, James calls us to live a fuller, richer, better life, to seek out and use our best energies and sympathies. As every day is the day of creation and judgment, so every age was once the new age—and as this book makes abundantly clear, William James’s writings are still the gateway to many a new world.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
William James, brother of novelist Henry James, has long been recognized as one of the fathers of modern psychology and of philosophical pragmatism. In this new selection of essays from James's voluminous writings, Richardson, James's biographer and a professor at Wesleyan University, attempts to add to this list of achievements, with slight success, by casting James as an early self-help guru. Seventeen essays--ranging from the early but formative ones on the physiology of emotions, the relationship between perception and belief, right through to James's mature works on habit formation, will, and action--provide an admirably broad overview of the author's expansive output. Scattered too among classic essays are lesser known gems such as "The Ph.D. Octopus," a brief disquisition on higher education, and a fascinating 1910 essay on war that might raise some modern eyebrows for its exhortation to substitute war between men for "warfare against nature." However, the collection's weakest moments are the editor's introductions to the individual pieces that are littered with platitudes and questionable speculation. The overall force and authority of James's prose, however, with its blend of insight and urgency, is more than strong enough to make up for the missteps. (Sept.)
Cornel West
William James brought heart to the intellect and passion to the world of ideas in an unprecedented manner in American life. He is the most profound, adorable, and unpretentious public intellectual in American history.
James T. Kloppenberg
A gift from the best biographer of William James, this volume collects some of James's most engaging and unforgettable writings. Readers unfamiliar with James will discover why his ideas continue to reverberate so powerfully a century after his death; those who already know James will delight in Robert Richardson's expert selections and incisive commentary. At a time when self-proclaimed followers of James's philosophy inhabit schools of medicine and law as well as divinity, and his ideas inspire those working in sites ranging from psychology laboratories and corporate board rooms to the White House, this sparkling collection reminds us why James remains alive today.
The Guardian - John Banville
So fresh is William James's thought and so unbuttoned and irreverent his character that he is always contemporary; it comes as something of a shock, therefore, to recall that he was born as long ago as 1842...James is a philosopher--practical and romantic, down-to-earth and ecstatic, accommodating and specific--whom we need ever more urgently in our own times. In Robert Richardson, whose biography of James is, along with his lives of Thoreau and Emerson, one of the glories of contemporary American literature, the philosopher has found a tireless champion and a perceptive editor. Richardson is that increasingly rare phenomenon among academics, an enthusiast, even a lover, of his subjects. In this book, no less than in the biography, he brings to life this great thinker and rare human being.
The Nation - Marilynne Robinson
It is difficult for any selection to do justice to the thought of William James, and difficult as well for a reviewer to do justice to the seventeen fine essays collected in The Heart of William James. He is fortunate to have Robert Richardson as his biographer, editor and interpreter, a kindred spirit whose admiration for James is thoroughly compounded with his enjoyment of him. He makes the great man accessible as if he were presenting an honored friend, ready to step out of the way and allow a wonderful conversation to begin. And James is indeed a remarkable acquaintance, full of the pleasures of fine prose and humorous insight, and demanding all the same.
Commentary - Peter Savodnik
James seeks to instruct his readers in how they can achieve their best selves, how they can retain and expand and nourish their individuality. As this collection makes clear, he has good reason to fear that that individuality is being squandered. In fact, the subtext of all the essays in this collection might very well be: Americans are in perennial danger of surrendering their Americanness, and I will do my best to stop them...It was, and is, the role of William James, the articulator if not the keeper of the faith, to remind us of who we are and who we were meant to be.
The Guardian

William James, brother of the—in some quarters—more famous Henry, was that rarest of beings, a philosopher who wrote clear, elegant, and exciting prose. In The Heart of William James, James's biographer Robert Richardson has put together a dazzling selection of this great thinker's work, with perfectly judged short pieces to usher in each of the selections.
— John Banville

The Nation

It is difficult for any selection to do justice to the thought of William James, and difficult as well for a reviewer to do justice to the seventeen fine essays collected in The Heart of William James. He is fortunate to have Robert Richardson as his biographer, editor and interpreter, a kindred spirit whose admiration for James is thoroughly compounded with his enjoyment of him. He makes the great man accessible as if he were presenting an honored friend, ready to step out of the way and allow a wonderful conversation to begin. And James is indeed a remarkable acquaintance, full of the pleasures of fine prose and humorous insight, and demanding all the same.
— Marilynne Robinson

Commentary

James seeks to instruct his readers in how they can achieve their best selves, how they can retain and expand and nourish their individuality. As this collection makes clear, he has good reason to fear that that individuality is being squandered. In fact, the subtext of all the essays in this collection might very well be: Americans are in perennial danger of surrendering their Americanness, and I will do my best to stop them...It was, and is, the role of William James, the articulator if not the keeper of the faith, to remind us of who we are and who we were meant to be.
— Peter Savodnik

New York Review of Books

So fresh is William James's thought and so unbuttoned and irreverent his character that he is always contemporary; it comes as something of a shock, therefore, to recall that he was born as long ago as 1842...James is a philosopher—practical and romantic, down-to-earth and ecstatic, accommodating and specific—whom we need ever more urgently in our own times. In Robert Richardson, whose biography of James is, along with his lives of Thoreau and Emerson, one of the glories of contemporary American literature, the philosopher has found a tireless champion and a perceptive editor. Richardson is that increasingly rare phenomenon among academics, an enthusiast, even a lover, of his subjects. In this book, no less than in the biography, he brings to life this great thinker and rare human being.
— John Banville

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780674055612
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press
  • Publication date: 8/31/2010
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 368
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.20 (h) x 1.30 (d)

Meet the Author

Robert Richardson is an independent scholar who has taught at the University of Denver, Harvard University, and several other schools.
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Table of Contents

Introduction Robert Richardson ix

Note on the Texts xix

Chronology of William James's Life xxi

1 What Is an Emotion? 1

2 The Dilemma of Determinism 20

3 The Perception of Reality 46

4 The Hidden Self 79

5 Habit 101

6 The Will 116

7 The Gospel of Relaxation 130

8 On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings 145

9 What Makes a Life Significant 164

10 Philosophical Conceptions and Practical Results 183

11 The Philippine Tangle 203

12 The Sick Soul 209

13 The Ph.D. Octopus 238

14 Does 'Consciousness' Exist? 247

15 The Energies of Men 263

16 Concerning Fechner 281

17 The Moral Equivalent of War 301

Notes 315

Further Reading 333

Acknowledgments 335

Index 339

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