William James and the Art of Popular Statement

William James and the Art of Popular Statement

by Paul Stob

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At the turn of the twentieth century, no other public intellectual was as celebrated in America as the influential philosopher and psychologist William James. Sought after around the country, James developed his ideas in lecture halls and via essays and books intended for general audiences. Reaching out to and connecting with these audiences was crucial to

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At the turn of the twentieth century, no other public intellectual was as celebrated in America as the influential philosopher and psychologist William James. Sought after around the country, James developed his ideas in lecture halls and via essays and books intended for general audiences. Reaching out to and connecting with these audiences was crucial to James—so crucial that in 1903 he identified “popular statement,” or speaking and writing in a way that animated the thought of popular audiences, as the “highest form of art.” Paul Stob’s thought-provoking history traces James’s art of popular statement through pivotal lectures, essays, and books, including his 1878 lectures in Baltimore and Boston, “Talks to Teachers on Psychology,” “The Varieties of Religious Experience,” and “Pragmatism.” The book explores James’s unique approach to public address, which involved crafting lectures in science, religion, and philosophy around ordinary people and their experiences. With democratic bravado, James confronted those who had accumulated power through various systems of academic and professional authority, and argued that intellectual power should be returned to the people. Stob argues that James gave those he addressed a central role in the pursuit of knowledge and fostered in them a new intellectual curiosity unlike few scholars before or since.

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From the Publisher

An outstanding and provocative book on several levels. It is beautifully written and researched, and integrates archival sources seamlessly into the analysis of primary texts.
—William Keith, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee

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Michigan State University Press
Publication date:
Rhetoric & Public Affairs Series
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5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.80(d)

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William James and the Art of Popular Statement

By Paul Stob

Michigan State University Press

Copyright © 2013 Paul Stob
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-61186-083-2

Chapter One

Eloquence and Professionalism in the Nineteenth Century

* * *

Born in January 1842, William James grew up in uncertain times. Politically, socially, culturally, economically, and intellectually, the world of his youth would little resemble the world of his adulthood. Perhaps Henry Adams—James's contemporary, friend, and fellow intellectual—captured the changes best when he wrote: "The American boy of 1854 stood nearer the year 1 than to the year 1900." The Civil War was the defining event of James's generation, but the war affected his career less directly than did the changes in the pursuit of knowledge that shaped his upbringing.

During the nineteenth century, intellectual culture underwent a striking metamorphosis. This is not to say that the world of thought changed overnight; the metamorphosis took decades. But it is to say that intellectual culture was a different creature at the end of the century than at the beginning. In the most general terms, the metamorphosis involved the shift from a "culture of eloquence" to a "culture of professionalism." In the culture of eloquence, which was prominent for much of the first half of the nineteenth century, the pursuit of knowledge was defined by broad, prophetic visions and efforts to edify the general community. For many Americans of the time, the heart of the nation's intellectual life could be found in popular, relatively accessible, civically focused lecture halls and periodicals, which spread new ideas to middle-and upper-class communities from Maine to Missouri. In the culture of professionalism, which shaped much of the second half of the nineteenth century, the pursuit of knowledge was defined by specialized inquiry, strong disciplinary boundaries, and academically certified experts. After the Civil War, the heart of America's intellectual life moved to universities, laboratories, narrowly focused journals, and other professionally oriented forums. This is not to say that lecture halls and popular periodicals disappeared altogether, of course. But it is to say that people's perceptions about where true knowledge was produced shifted away from the venues that had defined the culture of eloquence.

Scholars have long recognized that James became intellectually prominent during a time of specialization, fragmentation, and scholarly division. Francesca Bordogna has even shown that James's prominence was due in no small part to his ability to work past the academic boundaries of his era. Yet James's place in the era of expertise only tells half the story. His work not only emerged from and helped critique a time of academic professionalism but also kept alive the spirit of eloquence that had defined his youth. If we are to understand the moments of popular interaction that structured James's career, we need to understand how he developed in and through the shift from eloquence to professionalism.

The purpose of this chapter, then, is to lay the groundwork for a claim that will be developed more fully in subsequent chapters. Specifically, the points of tension between the culture of eloquence and the culture of professionalism provided James with a wealth of rhetorical resources for relating to and interacting with popular audiences. Because of his understanding of intellectual life in the first half of the nineteenth century, he was able to reconnect the American people to an increasingly rare yet still appreciated mode of thought and engagement. At the same time, because of his understanding of modern science and the new frontiers of the mind, he was able to help his audiences comprehend, respond to, and participate in patterns of thought in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In short, the attitudes, appeals, ideas, practices, and commitments James displayed in moments of popular interaction grew out of the intellectual tensions between eloquence and professionalism.

As we shall see below, some of the most significant figures in James's upbringing were giants of the culture of eloquence, modeling for him an artistic, oratorical, visionary, and civically minded form of engagement. Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry James Sr., William's father, were particularly important in this regard. Their example created a background against which it is necessary to view James's turn to popular statement. Yet even as a young man, James knew that the world of thought was changing, and if he were to thrive, he would need to branch out from these early influences. As a student at Harvard's Lawrence Scientific School and at the medical school, he received an enviable scientific education. He also encountered a number of influential professors—namely Benjamin Peirce, Asa Gray, Jeffries Wyman, Louis Agassiz, and Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr.—who modeled different forms of engagement applicable in the second half of the nineteenth century. By the time James graduated from Harvard in 1869 with a medical degree, he had traversed much of America's changing intellectual landscape. But his journey left him with few answers about how best to live the life of the mind. He soon entered a time of profound uncertainty and depression, which, we shall see, was closely connected to the metamorphosis of inquiry.

Reared in a Culture of Eloquence

The culture of eloquence, which took hold in the 1830s and reached its zenith in the 1840s and 1850s, revolved around the belief that eloquent discourse could transform speakers, writers, listeners, and readers through mutually affective interactions. Out of these interactions would come "the possibility of new movement, power, and efficacy" in rhetors and audiences alike. Thus pervading the era was a robust spirit of public engagement, a resounding affirmation of the "public responsibility of citizenship." The best Americans, at least in the popular imagination, were those who put their personal interests aside and worked for the improvement of their community and nation. Their tool in this project of improvement was the art of oratory, which became "a prime necessity to success in public life." The "good man skilled in speaking" was to lead the nation through the dizzying array of problems that defined antebellum society. Daniel Webster, Henry Clay, John C. Calhoun, Wendell Philips, Edward Everett, and Frederick Douglass, among many others, were giants of the culture of eloquence because they brought rhetorical wisdom to bear on common problems. Together, they created what Edward Parker famously called the "Golden Age of American Oratory."

The spirit of public engagement and the importance of oratory shaped almost all aspects of American life, including the nation's intellectual culture. Indeed, for much of the first half of the nineteenth century, knowledge and eloquence were inexorably linked. Being able to articulate one's ideas compellingly became inseparable from what it meant to be learned, as effective speaking defined the properly cultivated mind. As George Curtis, editor of Harper's Monthly Magazine, explained in 1856, the height of intellectual ability was to be found in "the living speaker, commanding subject and audience by fullness of knowledge and potency of will—every muscle and nerve in the service of thought and emotion, every pulse obedient to the intellect." In the culture of eloquence, then, insight and rhetorical artistry were counterparts in the pursuit of knowledge, and the world of thought marched forward through oratorical activity.

The close connection between eloquence and knowledge was accompanied by an important new venue for ideas—the popular lecture, which would prove central to the work of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry James Sr., not to mention William James. The popular lecture was a "disinterested act," at once witty, serious, and moral, and directed at "the good of the audience and society." It was, in short, a way for the community to think and grow together. As Thomas Wentworth Higginson, a prominent abolitionist and popular lecturer—as well as a friend of the James family—explained: "Thought must be popularized, execution made broader and rougher, before it can be appreciated in an instant by a thousand minds; but those thousand minds give you in return a magnificent stimulus that solitude can never supply. It is needless to debate which is best: it is the difference between light and heat."

As popular lectures sparked the imaginations of communities across the country, there soon arose a new vocation. For the first time in American history, individuals could earn their keep solely by peddling intellectual wares on the public stage. They could live the life of the mind without the backing of a university or religious order and without a more traditional form of income to supplement public performances. Popular lectures thus offered "occupational identity and prestige, an income, and a public intellectual role." The best example of this new vocational opportunity was the lyceum movement, which structured the art of popular lecturing for much of the nineteenth century. Taking its inspiration partly from the British Mechanics' Institute and partly from Josiah Holbrook, who, in October 1826, published a manifesto stressing the importance of continuing education for all individuals, the lyceum gave lecturers and audiences a forum for entering the marketplace of ideas. Traveling to diverse communities in various locales, lyceum lecturers covered a broad range of topics—from practical matters such as farming, gardening, raising animals, raising children, and making sound investments to more scholarly subjects such as history, art, philosophy, language, and literature. Together, lecturers promoted a new cultural consciousness, giving disparate audiences a similar way of viewing the nation's problems and possibilities.

Although the lyceum movement in particular and the lecture circuit in general were never as egalitarian as some believed—they were too often divided according to race, class, and gender18—what really mattered to those participating in the culture of eloquence was the democratic ideal that guided them. Speakers insisted that they were working for the moral and intellectual uplift of the nation. Even though they often addressed a white, middle-class, Protestant audience, lecturers saw themselves as concerned citizens engaging fellow citizens on common problems. They were agents of edification and delegates of culture, providing "society with the means to dispense justice, debate policy, and exalt the beauties of truth and nature." As Edward Channing explained in 1856, lecturers, orators, and debaters were not taking part in a contest for "triumph over each other and an ignorant multitude; the orator himself is but one of the multitude, deliberating with them upon common interests, which are well understood and valued by all."

Channing's sentiment points to perhaps the most important feature of the culture of eloquence, at least if we are to understand James's place in public culture later in the nineteenth century—namely, the primacy of the audience in the intellectual encounter. For Channing and for countless others at the time, speakers and audiences were engaged in a collaborative project, the result of which was the fullest, most important kind of knowledge possible. Lecturers did not impart ideas to the masses; rather, they entered into "a process marked by intellectual and emotional reciprocity" with the communities they addressed. In essence, then, audiences were able to shape the movement of ideas on the lecture circuit right along with speakers. "The people" had remarkable intellectual agency. Because their pocketbooks provided a lecturer's livelihood, they had the power to authorize some speakers to continue their work and to deny others the chance to move forward. As one commentator explained in 1865, "The popular lecture is the most purely democratic of all our democratic institutions. The people hear a second time only those who interest them. If a lecturer cannot engage the interest of his audience, his fame or greatness or learning will pass for nothing."

What audiences demanded above all from speakers was an astute rhetorical prowess, an engaging and inspiring language, as eloquence and knowledge were inexorably linked. A successful lecturer had to entertain at the same time that he or she helped audience members refine their skills or see the world in a new light. Participating in the world of thought meant blending education, edification, and entertainment. Consequently, a lecturer's ability to articulate a compelling vision was far more important than any advanced degree or specialized training. Of course, some level of education or personal experience was implied. But the primary requirement for engaging one's community was rhetorical artistry. Moreover, because advanced degrees and specialized training carried little weight, orators and lectures could be as wide-ranging as they wished. They did not have to live according to disciplinary boundaries, so long as they could articulate an insight eloquently and so long as audiences remained interested. The same lecturer might speak on literature, history, and philosophy before turning to biology, astronomy, and botany. If a speaker was able to inspire, entertain, and enlighten, he or she was in a perfect position to work with popular audiences on crafting a shared vision.

Publicly oriented, wide-ranging, attuned to the language of the community, directed at moral cultivation and the alleviation of common problems—eloquent intellectual practice represented the height of knowledge for several decades. For William James, it represented the tenor of childhood. As a privileged New Englander, he was fortunate to live in the presence of some of the most celebrated thinkers, lectures, and writers of the first half of the nineteenth century—the two most important being Emerson and Henry Sr. Eugene Taylor has argued that Emerson and Henry Sr. played a much more central role in the development of James's thought than scholars typically recognize. Taylor is correct, but the point goes further. Emerson and Henry Sr. showed James the importance of public commitments and popular intellectual practices; they modeled the behaviors and attitudes that would later define his career.

In the culture of eloquence, few names could compare with Emerson's, a man who earned his keep largely on the lecture circuit and who, more than anyone else, defined the intellectual side of American oratory. As the intellectual figurehead of the eloquent generation, he was the perfect expression of his own call for the American Scholar. But Emerson was more than a lecturer and more than a scholar; he was the nation's first public intellectual, a font of ideas who flooded American culture via the public platform. During his career, Emerson delivered more than 1,500 public lectures, speaking in almost every state in the nation. Donning a long black robe, he assumed his place at the lectern between fifty and eighty times a year. Because of the time he spent on the lecture circuit, he had the opportunity to create powerful connections with the American people. Many relished the novelty and eloquence of his vision; others despised his unorthodox, potentially heretical thought. But even those who despised him knew he was making a significant mark on American society. For good or for ill, Emerson demanded attention, and audiences felt compelled to cheer him on, to respond to him, to argue over his ideas, or to defend their beliefs against his.

On the lecture circuit, Emerson was as wide-ranging as he was visionary, greatly contributing to the egalitarian ideal of the culture of eloquence. One night he might speak on English literature, the next on classical poetry, the next on fine art, the next on modern philosophy, and the next on Western history. After that he might move to biology, botany, zoology, travel, or leisure. Like other public lecturers at the time, he was not confined by disciplinary boundaries. As long as audiences were willing to listen—and most Americans were willing to listen to Emerson—he could roam the intellectual landscape as he wished, connecting his listeners to the world of ideas through a striking and sometimes peculiar discursive style. One lecture attendee and future president of the United States, Rutherford B. Hayes, effectively captured Emerson's relationship with the American people when he wrote: "Logic and method, he has none, but his bead-string of suggestions, fancies, ideas, anecdotes, and illustrations, delivered in a subdued, earnest manner, is as effective in chaining the attention of his audience as the most systematic discourse could be."

Across New England, a generation of aspiring intellectuals looked to Emerson for guidance and inspiration. In his hometown of Concord, the entire community practically organized itself around his influence. Outside of Concord, supporters could be just as enthusiastic. One such dedicated follower was Henry James Sr. Because of Henry Sr.'s interest in emulating Emerson, the young William James would have his most direct connection to the culture of eloquence.


Excerpted from William James and the Art of Popular Statement by Paul Stob Copyright © 2013 by Paul Stob. Excerpted by permission of Michigan State University Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Paul Stob is Assistant Professor of Communication Studies at Vanderbilt University.

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