This is the last installment of my three-part study of William James, a philosopher I find uniquely compelling. William James was born in New York City in 1842, spent most of his adult life at Harvard University, and died in 1910 at his home in New Hampshire. He originally trained to be a medical doctor, and in this capacity he spent his early academic career absorbing the fascinating writings of new European "psychologists" like Ivan Pavlov and Sigmund Freud. He represented America at international conferences devoted to this then-controversial discipline, helped found Harvard's psychology department, then left the field to turn his attention towards epistemology and philosophy, where he would have his greatest influence.
William James's best books include The Varieties of Religious Experience, The Principles of Psychology and Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking. His books are a breezy pleasure to read, and the arguments they present are not only enlightening but also heartening. Reading a book by William James can feel like escaping from jail. His approach to difficult or age-old philosophical debates like the free-will question is to point out that taking any stance on this question is a self-defining action that will determine the apparent "truth" about the matter. The truth does not define the stance; rather, the stance defines the truth. James demonstrates this with his answer to the free will question: "My first act of free will is to believe in free will".
James's concept of truth, which he labelled "Pragmatism" (building upon the work of an earlier American philosopher, Charles Peirce, who used the term "pragmatism" in a less forceful way), became his claim to fame. Interestingly, William James was not the only famous intellectual in his immediate family; the great novelist Henry James was his younger brother.
These are two of the most remarkable American minds, and yet surprisingly little information can be found about the relationship between the brothers. What follows is the evidence I've been able to gather by examining three sources: the biographical record, the published letters, and the fiction of Henry James. Here's what I found:
According to Leon Edel's classic biography of Henry James, the two brothers were close in age but never in temperament. William, the family's eldest, conducted himself with a purposeful moral seriousness, whereas Henry had a puckish sense of humor and a wholly artistic view of life.
In the way that close siblings sometimes do, William and Henry seem to have strictly defined their intellectual borders to oppose and exclude each other. William was generally disinterested in literature and fiction, and Henry scoffed gently at philosophy. The two even seemed to avoid each other physically; William left New York for the green pastures of Harvard University, and Henry abandoned America entirely, so fully losing himself in the rich pleasures of English dinner parties and literary salons that he is often mistaken for a European writer.
A thick Penguin Classics edition of Henry James's letters gives us a direct glimpse at the relationship between the two brothers. They clearly liked and respected each other, but they did not write often, and when they did they tended to chat about the health of their parents, the activities of their three younger siblings and other impersonal matters. But what, I am dying to know, did William think of Henry's remarkable novels? And what did Henry think about his brother's groundbreaking and controversial academic work?
They don't waste much time with praise. In 1905, William wrote to Henry about his latest weighty novel:
I read your Golden Bowl a month of more ago, and it put me, as most of your recenter long stories have put me, in a very puzzled state of mind. I don't enjoy the kind of 'problem,' especially when as in this case it is treated as problematic (viz. the adulterous relations betw. Ch. & the P.), and the method of narration by interminable elaboration of suggestive reference (I don't know what to call it, but you know what I mean) goes agin the grain of all my own impulses in writing; and yet in spite of it all, there is a brilliancy and cleanness of effect, and in this book especially a high toned social atmosphere that are unique and extraordinary. Your methods & my ideals seem the reverse, the one of the other -- and yet I have to admit your extreme success in this book. But why won't you, just to please Brother, sit down and write a new book, with no twilight or mustiness in the plot, with great vigor and decisiveness in the action, no fencing in the dialogue, no psychological commentaries, and absolute straightness in the style?
Amazingly, William James seems to have wished for Ernest Hemingway as a younger brother, though the world would be much poorer for it.
As befits their lifelong pattern, Henry adopted a bemused shrug when discussing his older brother's important books. He never argued with William's conclusions, but sometimes pretended (the pose is hardly believable) to have had to struggle to follow them. In 1907 he apologized for failing to respond more quickly to William's Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking, claiming that the book waylaid him even as he agreed with it:
I simply sank down, under it, into such depths of submission and assimilation that any reaction, very nearly, even that of acknowledgement, would have had almost the taint of dissent or escape. Then I was lost in the wonder of the extent to which all my life I have (like M. Jourdain) unconsciously pragmatized. You are immensely & universally right ...
Two years later, Henry writes, ending a long friendly letter:
All this time I'm not thanking you in the competent way for your 'Pluralistic' volume -- which now I can effusively do. I read it, while in town, with a more thrilled interest than I can say; with enchantment, with pride, & almost with comprehension. It may sustain & inspire you a little to know that I'm with you, all along the line -- & can conceive of no sense in any philosophy that is not yours!
Praise is the major note in this letter, yet Henry sneakily speaks in negative outlines: the novelist can conceive of no sense in any other philosophy, but it is not clear that he conceives of sense in any philosophy at all.
Henry James grasped the power of pragmatism, but many of his novels feature pragmatic and manipulative villians who destroy the lives of starry-eyed innocents. Gilbert Osmond, Doctor Sloper and the Marquise de Cintre are entirely willful and pragmatic (if not Pragmatistic); Isabel Archer, Catherine Sloper and Christopher Newman are their victims.
There is a danger of over-dramatizing the intellectual gulf between these two liberal thinkers, who clearly respected each other tremendously. Perhaps it's best to conclude that vast significances lie between the Apollonian opinions of the Harvard professor and the Dionysian observations of the London socialite. Both brothers seemed to have liked their younger sister Alice better than they liked each other. Maybe there was just too much brilliance abounding in the room for a single family dinner table to comfortably contain.
My William James revery continues. It's easy to like this American philosopher, and it's fascinating to learn about the other great intellects he interacted with: Ralph Waldo Emerson was his godfather, Henry James was his sibling rival, Gertrude Stein and W. E. B. DuBois were among his students at Harvard. He was a medical doctor and a superb writer as well as a career academic. As one of the first Americans to pay serious attention to an emerging European science that called itself "psychology", he mingled with Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung.
James stood for a number of controversial opinions on issues that are still hotly debated today. His signature theory, Pragmatism, posits that willfulness is the primary ingredient in human belief. It did not puzzle William James that two people can look at the same evidence and arrive at completely separate conclusions, because James believed that a person's understanding of truth is inexorably bound to that person's motivation. We are practical above all else, and within the range of all possible belief systems we will always choose the belief system that benefits us the most. This leads to the pragmatist's definition of truth: truth is that which is useful for us to believe in.
Let's allow the philosopher speak for himself, though:
"The great assumption of the intellectualists is that truth means essentially an inert static relation. When you've got your true idea of anything, there's an end of the matter. You're in possession; you know; you have fulfilled your thinking destiny. You are where you ought to be mentally; you have obeyed your categorical imperative; and nothing more need follow on that climax of your rational destiny. Epistemologically you are in stable equilibrium.
Pragmatism, on the other hand, asks its usual question. "Grant an idea or belief to be true," it says, "what concrete difference will its being true make in anyone's actual life? How will the truth be realized? What experiences will be different from those which would obtain if the belief were false? What, in short, is the truth's cash-value in experiential terms?"
The moment pragmatism asks this question, it sees the answer: True ideas are those that we can assimilate, validate, corroborate and verify. False ideas are those that we cannot. That is the practical difference it makes to us to have true ideas; that, therefore, is the meaning of truth, for it is all that truth is known-as.
This thesis is what I have to defend. The truth of an idea is not a stagnant property inherent in it. Truth happens to an idea. It becomes true, is made true by events."
"It is quite evident that our obligation to acknowledge truth, so far from being unconditional, is tremendously conditioned. Truth with a big T, and in the singular, claims abstractly to be recognized, of course; but concrete truths in the plural need be recognized only when their recognition is expedient. A truth must always be preferred to a falsehood when both relate to the situation; but when neither does, truth is as little of a duty as falsehood. If you ask me what o'clock it is and I tell you that I live at 95 Irving Street, my answer may indeed be true, but you don't see why it is my duty to give it. A false address would be as much to the purpose."
And, just because I love these quotes and can't stop clipping them, here's one more ...
Believe truth! Shun error!-these, we see, are two materially different laws; and by choosing between them we may end by coloring differently our whole intellectual life. We may regard the chase for truth as paramount, and the avoidance of error as secondary; or we may, on the other hand, treat the avoidance of error as more imperative, and let truth take its chance. Clifford, in the instructive passage which I have quoted, exhorts us to the latter course. Believe nothing, he tells us, keep your mind in suspense forever, rather than by closing it on insufficient evidence incur the awful risk of believing lies. You, on the other hand, may think that the risk of being in error is a very small matter when compared with the blessings of real knowledge, and be ready to be duped many times in your investigation rather than postpone indefinitely the chance of guessing true. I myself find it impossible to go with Clifford. We must remember that these feelings of our duty about either truth or error are in any case only expressions of our passional life. Biologically considered, our minds are as ready to grind out falsehood as veracity, and he who says, " Better go without belief forever than believe a lie!" merely shows his own preponderant private horror of becoming a dupe. He may be critical of many of his desires and fears, but this fear he slavishly obeys. He cannot imagine any one questioning its binding force. For my own part, I have also a horror of being duped; but I can believe that worse things than being duped may happen to a man in this world: so Clifford's exhortation has to my ears a thoroughly fantastic sound. It is like a general informing his soldiers that it is better to keep out of battle forever than to risk a single wound. Not so are victories either over enemies or over nature gained. Our errors are surely not such awfully solemn things. In a world where we are so certain to incur them in spite of all our caution, a certain lightness of heart seems healthier than this excessive nervousness on their behalf. At any rate, it seems the fittest thing for the empiricist philosopher.
A pragmatist turns his back resolutely and once for all upon a lot of inveterate habits dear to professional philosophers. He turns away from abstraction and insufficiency, from verbal solutions, from bad a priori reasons, from fixed principles, closed systems, and pretended absolutes and origins. He turns towards concreteness and adequacy, towards facts, towards action and towards power. That means the empiricist temper regnant and the rationalist temper sincerely given up. It means the open air and possibilities of nature, as against dogma, artificiality, and the pretence of finality in truth."
It's important to note that William James did not try to frame his theory of pragmatism as a revolutionary idea, but rather as an obvious fact of life that nobody wants to admit. He called one of his books Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking, and indeed we all know privately (though we may not want to say it out loud) that it is our basic human nature to bend truth so that it fits our wishes and serves our goals. James' unique contribution to the field of philosophy and epistemology was to spell this out proudly and simply, to admit that his own beliefs were completely willful, and to challenge his fellow thinkers to find any form of belief or opinion that is not subject to the shaping and molding we willful humans place upon it.
William James died in 1910, four years before the start of the first World War. He stood against all forms of smug piety and intellectual bigotry, but unfortunately his theory of pragmatism was no match for the violent belief-crazed excesses of the century that followed. These days, we need his brand of honesty more than ever.
Here's a decent jumping-off point if you'd like to learn more about William James. I've also got at least one more article to write about his stance on the question of free will, and then I'd like to explore an interesting question: how did it affect novelist Henry James to grow up with this guy as an older brother? Stay tuned for more.
Consider this scenario: a 6-year-old kid named Ben invites a friend, Zack, over to play. They go up to Ben's room, where Ben has a big train set, and Zack grabs Ben's favorite train and looks at it, causing Ben to suddenly burst out in tears. His Mom comes rushing in, takes the train from Zack, and comforts Ben until he calms down.
Ben's reaction is so extreme that it worries his mother, and from that time on, whenever a new friend comes to visit she makes a point of whispering to them first, "Be careful not to touch his toys. It gets him upset." This seems to head off any future disasters, and the incident is gradually forgotten.
Simple story, simple resolution -- right? But now let's bring in a favorite philosopher, the distinguished William James, to analyze the situation. James, a highly original and important American thinker who happened to be the older brother of novelist Henry James, had a peculiar theory of emotion. According to James, we don't smile because we feel happy or cry because we feel sad. The physical reaction happens first, the philosopher said, and it's more correct to say we feel happy because we smile, or we feel sad because we cry.