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William James in Focus
Willing to Believe
By William J. Gavin
Indiana University PressCopyright © 2013 William J. Gavin
All rights reserved.
Will to Believe as Affirmation
William James was born on January 11, 1842, in New York City, at the Astor House. His father's father made a great deal of money. Among other things, he invested in the Erie Canal. At one time, he was reputed to be the second-richest person in New York State, after John Jacob Astor. James's father inherited a considerable amount of this fortune; he also suffered a serious accident, which required that his leg be amputated at the knee. This loss of mobility gave him large amounts of time to dote on the education of his children, the two most famous of whom were William and Henry, although Alice was a formidable figure in her own right. William made the first of many trips to Europe at the age of two. In the 1850s, he attended a private school in New York City, where he impressed his drawing teacher with his natural talent for sketching. During the period 1855–58, he was in London and Paris and attended college in Boulogne-sur-Mer; in 1859, he was at school in Newport, Rhode Island. In 1860, he was at the Academy in Geneva. In 1861, he was back in America, studying painting under William Hunt. James's father, however, did not approve of art as a vocation. A devotee of Emanuel Swedenborg, he believed that salvation could only be granted en masse, not through individual effort. This was something William could never accept.
From 1864 until 1869, James attended Harvard Medical School, receiving an MD in the last year of this period. This was the only degree James received, but he never did practice. This in itself was truly remarkable when we remember that James is often called "the father of American psychology" and that he, together with Charles Sanders Peirce and John Dewey, is considered to be one of the three founding fathers of the philosophy known as pragmatism. James was, in short, a true interdisciplinarian—far ahead of his time.
From 1865 to 1866, James accompanied Louis Agassiz to Brazil on an expedition dedicated to refuting the newly formulated theories of Charles Darwin. For James, the expedition was not successful; he came down with varioloid, a form of smallpox, strong enough to put him in the hospital. He did, however, become quite infatuated with the wildness of Brazil and its native power. This may have had an effect on his later concept of "pure experience."
From 1868 to 1870, James went through a period of extreme depression—something that we will return to shortly. He did, however, manage to overcome it. Subsequently, President Charles William Eliot of Harvard offered him a teaching job, and, in the 1873–74 school year, he became an instructor in anatomy, physiology, and natural history. He taught his first course in psychology in 1875. William married Alice Howe Gibbens in 1878; that same year, he signed a contract to write a psychology text. It was supposed to take two years to complete; instead, it took twelve years. The amount of time James took to write the book greatly frustrated his publisher, but the end result made James internationally famous. During this time also, "The Sentiment of Rationality" was published (1879), and James taught his first course in philosophy (1879). He bought a summer home in Chocorua, New Hampshire, in 1886, reputedly because it had fourteen doors, all opening "outward." His sister Alice coyly commented that his mind was not limited to only fourteen! James's writing became more prolific after The Principles of Psychology (PP). The Will to Believe and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy (WB) was published in 1897, and Talks to Teachers on Psychology and to Students on Some of Life's Ideals (TT) in 1899. During the period 1901–1902, James gave the prestigious Gifford Lectures at Edinburgh University. These were subsequently published as The Varieties of Religious Experience (VRE). The lectures, subsequently published as Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking (Prag), were delivered at the Lowell Institute in Boston in November and December of 1906.
That same year, James resigned from Harvard at almost fifty-six years of age. He had been trying to do so for some time, but pressure from the university president forced him to remain longer than he wished. James gave the Hibbert Lectures on Pluralism at Oxford University in 1908. These were published in 1909, as was the text titled The Meaning of Truth (MT). From March to August, James was in Europe, where he had frequently journeyed for health issues during his lifetime. He returned to America in August 1910, seeming almost to "hold on" until he made it back to his summer home in Chocorua. Essays in Radical Empiricism (ERE), a series of papers for which James had drawn up a rough table of contents, was published posthumously in 1912.
So much for the highpoints of James's life; these constitute the "manifest image," so to speak. That manifest image has as its central apex James's conflict with nihilism, depression, and death. Let us see how this came about.
As is clear from the above, for the first three decades or so of his life, James led a unique, somewhat pampered, and rather unusual lifestyle. He was placed in and removed from several educational contexts, turned to painting, gave that up for a career in science, ultimately completing something else again, namely, an MD degree. Moreover, James's health at this time was not robust; he lost the use of his eyesight twice, suffered from insomnia and weakness of the back, and had gastrointestinal disturbances and periodic exhaustion. Moreover, his afflictions were also of a psychological nature, leading to deep depression and to a feeling that his will was inefficacious and paralyzed. He had several times gone to Europe for the "sulphur baths" for his various illnesses. James writes to his father from Berlin on September 5, 1867: "Although I cannot exactly say that I got low-spirited, yet thoughts of the pistol, the dagger, and the bowl began to usurp an unduly large part of my attention, and I began to think that some change, even if a hazardous one was necessary." This personal conflict with nihilism and subsequent temptation to commit suicide continued into 1870, when James writes in his diary,
Today I about touched rock bottom, and perceive plainly that I must face the choice with open eyes: shall I frankly throw the moral business overboard, as one unsuited to my innate aptitudes, or shall I follow it and it alone, making everything else merely stuff for it?
The "moral business" referred to here is that of a meaningful life, specifically the question of whether one can act efficaciously in pursuing chosen goals. By April 30 of that year, 1870, a definite change had come over James, through reading the works of the French philosopher Charles Renouvier. He writes in a notebook,
I think that yesterday was a crisis in my life. I finished the first part of Renouvier's second "Essais" and see no reason why his definition of Free Will—the sustaining of a thought because I choose to when I might have other thoughts—need be the definition of an illusion.... My first act of free will will be to believe in free will ... Not in maxims, not in Anschauungen [contemplative views], but in accumulated acts of thought lies salvation.... Hitherto, when I have felt like taking a free initiative like daring to act originally, without carefully waiting for contemplation of the external world to determine all for me suicide seemed the most manly form to put my daring into; now, I will go a step further with my will, not only act with it, but believe as well; believe in my individual reality and creative power. My belief, to be sure, can't be optimistic—but I will posit life (the real, the good) in the self-governing resistance of the ego to the world. Life shall [be built in] doing and suffering and creating.
In addition to this manifest image of James's personal life, there is also a subtext, a "latent image," if you will. This latent image has three aspects: the realization that this issue of freedom versus determinism cannot be solved as a seeming "problem" or quadratic equation but is one rather of "affirming" a position; second, the realization that this affirmation is not a once-and-for-all-time decision but must be reaffirmed continually; and, third, the realization that this task, because it will remain eternally unfinished, is a difficult one for James to carry out. Or differently stated, for James, writing the text throughout his life span is exercising "the will to believe." We return to this point in the epilogue.
Solving versus Affirming
What James realized in this instance is that what we might abstractly term the philosophical problem of freedom versus determinism cannot be solved on exclusively logical grounds or by an appeal to neutral empirical data. That is, one could construct a coherent argument for determinism—that we are the victims of our circumstances—and bolster it by showing that it corresponded to data—in this case, primarily the data of James's physical disorders and of his lack of any gainful employment thus far. On the other hand, one could construct an argument that the human self is free and able to act creatively and efficaciously; this argument, too, could be bolstered by appeal to corresponding empirical data—in this case, for example, by referring to James's successful pursuit of a medical degree. But when all is said and done, the arguments are inconclusive or indeterminate. Two competing hypotheses of equal worth can be put forth, both passing the traditional criteria of logical coherence and confirmation through correspondence with empirical facts. In brief, what James realized on a personal level in 1870 was that, first, the issue of freedom versus determinism was ambiguous or "vague" and, second, that this vagueness was what was most important about it. The problem cannot be solved but only be "resolved" through affirmation or action. For, in a vague situation like this, one is forced to react, and this participation is at least sometimes constitutive of the outcome. The issue of his own freedom versus determinism was richer, subtler than what appeared at the manifest level in terms of linguistic or conceptual categories.
Sustained or Continual Affirmation
The action taken by James in 1870 was not a onetime affair. There were other crises in James's life that called for a similar type of response. Other commentators have unveiled different crises in James's life. Thus, Daniel Bjork, in William James: The Center of his Vision, views the period between 1899 and 1902 as a time when James suffered a deep depression "perhaps even more severe" than the melancholia of 1869. James irreparably strained his heart while walking in the mountains of Keene Valley, New York, in 1898. For Bjork, James tried to deal with this second crisis in the same way as he did the first one, that is, by choosing an attitude, by redirecting and refocusing his vision: "Yet what worked in 1870 was not so workable in 1900. The active will was more likely to be broken during a terminal illness."
Charlene Haddock Seigfried sees three crises in James's life; the first, the well-known 1867–70 encounter with nihilism; the second occurring in 1895, as James began more and more to realize that the descriptive positivism he advocated in PP (discussed below) was inadequate; and the third as occurring in the fifth chapter of A Pluralistic Universe (PU). In this chapter, one directly confessional, James renounces the ability of "intellectualist logic" to deal with reality.
Comments such as these give rise to the suggestion that James's response to personal crises was of a continual nature rather than a onetime occurrence, that is, that a position in a vague situation must not only be taken but also continually reaffirmed. Such reaffirmation will not always be equally successful, reminding us possibly that we are "human, all too human," that is, fallible and vulnerable to failure.
This last point made serves as a reminder that doing philosophy for James required some effort. As he returned from the Agassiz expedition to Brazil, he wrote to his brother: "When I get home, I'm going to study philosophy all my days." Yet he does not do so. He accepts a job, offered by Eliot, the president of Harvard, to teach physiology and astronomy. He decided to do so reluctantly, saying that the "decision seems 'the wiser if the tamer than the other and nobler lot in life,'" which was to work at philosophy independently as his father had done. Philosophy, he thought, "as a business is not normal for most men, and not for me. To be responsible for a complete conception of things is beyond my strength." Cushing Strout notes that James had indicated an early interest in philosophy but repressed it for some time:
At the age of fifty-seven James was at last prepared, with some trepidation, to give his full attention to those philosophical issues which had defined his ambition at the age of twenty-three. Suffering from a valvular lesion of the heart, four years after his resignation [from Harvard] he died, convinced that his philosophy was "too much like an arch built only on one side." Nearly all his professional work ... began when he thought his professional career was finished.
Strout's astute analysis suggests that writing the text was for James a continual affirmation and reaffirmation of the will to believe. As Strout notes,
The elder James believed that men fell from grace individually, but could be saved collectively in a redeemed socialized society. His son, however, needed an individual salvation not only through faith but also in works. To translate this theological idiom, he needed to believe that there was a point and purpose to some particular work of his own with social meaning. He would finally save himself through his writing.
Reading the text in this manner allows us the possibility of seeing things "from the point of view of the other." It is what James thought we should do, as expressed in "On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings": "The spectator's judgment is sure to miss the root of the matter and to possess no truth." He gives as an example the instance of coming upon a number of farmed "coves" in North Carolina and viewing them as instances of squalor, but then realizing that, from the point of view of the meager planters, each of these coves "was a personal victory." Analogously, James once said that "philosophic study means the habit of always seeing an alternative, of not taking the usual for granted, of making conventionalities fluid again, of imagining foreign states of mind." Here we attempt to do something similar, that is, to view things from the point of view of the "other": in this case, James himself, to read his life and writings empathetically and not just descriptively.
James's conflict with nihilism and depression discloses a latent dimension to his thought—a continual preoccupation with death as an important topic. For example, in her recent biography of William James, titled Genuine Reality, Linda Simon tells us that
As he wrote the Gifford lectures [in 1901], James, by his own admission, was obsessed with death: his own, certainly and during the year, four men he knew and esteemed. In January, Frederic Myers succumbed with James at his bedside. In March, James learned from Hugo Munsterberg that Leon Mendez Solomons, a former student of his who had been teaching at the University of Nebraska, was dead at the age of twenty-seven, following an appendectomy. In August, British physical researcher Henry Sidgwick died of cancer; in September, his beloved friend Thomas Davidson. James thought he himself might be dead soon too, before he realized his full potential.
Indeed, in his own notes for his lectures for the VRE, James wrote,
I find myself in a cold, pinched, quaking state ... when I think of the probability of dying soon with all my music in me. My eyes are dry and hollow. My facial muscles ... won't contract, my throat quivers, my heart flutters, my breast and body feel as if stale and caked.... I have forgotten, really forgotten, that mass of the world's joyous facts which in my healthful days filled me with exultation about life.... The increasing pain and misery of more fully developed disease—the disgust, the final strangulation etc., begin to haunt me, I fear them; and the more I fear them, the more I think about them.
Just as he wanted to give up teaching, so too did he want to give up the popular style of lecturing for which he had become so famous and instead to write something serious and systematic—something that would bring "closure" to the process of describing life. Or so it seems, at first glance.
But the issue is a complicated one. On August 22, 1903, James had written to Sarah Whitman,
I am convinced that the desire to formulate truths is a virulent disease. It has contracted an alliance lately in me with a feverish personal ambition, which I never had before, and which I recognize as an unholy thing in such a connection. I actually dread to die until I have settled the Universe's hash in one more book.
But, having admitted to this temptation, James goes on to chastise himself for even entertaining such a consideration. He says (to himself), "Childish idiot—as if the formulas about the Universe could ruffle its majesty and as if the common sense world and its duties were not eternally the really real." In his work The Wounded Storyteller: Body, Illness and Ethics, Arthur Frank tells us "James feared his ambition to settle 'the Universe's hash.' To settle the universe's hash is to place oneself outside the vulnerability and contingency that being in the Universe involves. The intellectual infected with such an ambition ceases to think of himself as a body, thus disclaiming the vulnerability that bodies share." Most importantly, for Frank, "Responsibility [individual responsibility] begins and ends with the body."
Excerpted from William James in Focus by William J. Gavin. Copyright © 2013 William J. Gavin. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
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