William James

The Varieties of Religious Experience
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Selected Writings
William James


William James (1842-1910) is one of the half dozen most brilliant and respected intellectuals ever born in the United States. He also was one of the most celebrated public figures of his time.

A major reason for James’s importance is the pioneering role he played in the development of academic psychology in America. Though trained as a medical doctor, William James quickly veered toward the relatively new science of experimental psychology, which he began teaching at Harvard in the mid-1870s. In 1878, he agreed to write a psychology text that he thought would be about 400 pages long and take about 2 years to write.

Twelve years later, in 1890,The Principles of Psychology was published; its two volumes totaled almost 1400 pages. Immediately recognized as a masterpiece, the book has never been out of print. Today, though rarely read in its entirety, various seminal chapters continue to inspire and inform contemporary psychologists. George Santayana, a student of James’s, later a colleague, and himself a brilliant philosopher, psychologist, and writer, thought that Principles was by far James’s best book. In particular, he admired James’s “gift for evoking vividly the very life of the mind. This is a work of imagination; and the subject as he conceived it, which is the flux of immediate experience…in general, requires imagination to read it at all.” (Character and Opinion in the United States, 67-68).

Fifty years ago, another renowned psychologist, Gordon Allport, noted that William James was “the most respected and most loved of all psychological writers,” and that Principles presented “the perennial problems of the human mind so sincerely, so modestly, so truly, the passing years can do nothing but confer upon it the verdict of classic.” (The Person in Psychology,300). Passing time has only confirmed Allport’s judgment.

Another reason for William James’s celebrity is his role in the development of modern American philosophy, in which he was as much a pioneer as he was in psychology. With Charles Peirce and John Dewey, he was one the founders of Pragmatism, which continues to be the single most important and typically American school of philosophy. He also originated the philosophical perspective he named Radical Empiricism. From 1900 until his death in 1910, William James was to world both the face and voice of American philosophy.

Professional psychologists and philosophers of course esteemed William James primarily for his brilliance. But his fame and success certainly were increased by his striking gifts as a writer. A conversational style, picturesque images, vivid metaphors and analogies, compelling arguments combined to make his writings literally unforgettable. Probably no modern philosophical or psychological writer has been quoted more frequently.

As James writings became more widely appreciated, he enjoyed increasing success as a public lecturer. The Will to Believe, Pragmatism, Talks to Teachers, The Varieties of Religious Experience, and The Meaning of Truth all began either as lecture series or as collections of occasional lectures. James tended to be spontaneous and disorganized, so his lectures sometimes lacked coherence. But his colorful language, energy, and enthusiasm more than made up for formal shortcomings.

James’s also possessed almost irresistible personal charm. He loved a good argument, but his sense of humor, unfailing courtesy, and sincere modesty eased tensions and invited friendship. Unpretentious, unpredictable, and imaginative, he was a delight to listen to, but also he could listen. He had emphatic opinions, but he simply did not know how to be dogmatic, and he genuinely cared about the ideas and experiences of other people. He seemed to love so many of the people he met, no wonder so many of them loved him back.

James was a gushing fountain of new ideas, had wide-ranging intellectual interests, was brilliant and inventive, and had a talent for writing. Is it surprising that he was a prolific writer? In his lifetime, he published a dozen books, and after his death two or three more were created out of lectures and unpublished writings. He also wrote hundreds of articles and book reviews for both popular magazines and academic journals. In addition, he wrote literally thousands of letters to hundreds of friends, including many of the most important intellectuals and scholars in America and Europe. And all the while, he taught both undergraduate and graduate courses at Harvard most semesters from 1875 to 1907, first on medical topics, then on psychology, and eventually on philosophy.

By any measure, William James’s achievements obviously are impressive. Viewed against the background of his medical history, they are astonishing. Severe eyestrain, intestinal distress, insomnia, and back pains plagued him his entire adult life. He also suffered from “nervousness” and from depression occasionally so severe that he sometimes contemplated suicide. After his marriage in 1878, the comforts of domestic life, his blossoming career, and the demands of parenthood seemed to take James’s mind off his ailments and lessen his mood swings, but they never disappeared and occasionally became quite disabling. Frequently a physical or mental problem or some combination of several made it difficult for him to read, write, or teach.

As William James neared sixty, his health got significantly worse.   James loved to hike in the Adirondacks, but in 1898, he over did it (surprise!), strained his heart, and thus added chronic, increasingly severe chest pains to his other ongoing health problems, which also got worse. Since this period of declining health began while he was researching, writing, delivering, and preparing for publication the lectures that became his most famous book, The Varieties of Religious Experience, it is reasonable to assume that the related pressures James felt contributed to his declining health. Perhaps sensing that his time was running out, James nevertheless pushed ahead with several writing and publishing projects, even as his chest pains became more frequent and violent.

At 2:30 pm, August 26, 1910, William James’s brave heart finally stopped beating. Following a funeral service in Harvard Yard on August 30, 1910, his body was burned to ashes and bone and buried in the James family cemetery plot in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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