Familiar Letters of William James

This collection of letters, edited by his son Henry James Jr., was originally published in three installments.
To O. W. Holmes, Jr., and J. C. Gray, Jr.

[Winter of 1868-69]

Gents! entry-thieves--chevaliers d'industrie--well-dressed swindlers--confidence men--wolfs in sheep's clothing--asses in lions' skin--gentlemanly pickpockets--beware! The hand of the law is already on your throats and waits but a wink to be tightened. All the resources of the immensely powerful corporation of Harvard University have been set in motion, and concealment of your miserable selves or of the almost equally miserable (though not as such miserable) goloshes which you stole from our entry on Sunday night is as impossible as would be the concealment of the State House. The motive of your precipitate departure from the house became immediately evident to the remaining guests. But they resolved to IGNORE the matter provided the overshoes were replaced within a week; if not, no CONSIDERATIONS WHATEVER will prevent Messrs. Gurney & Perry* from proceeding to treat you with the utmost severity of the law. It is high time that some of these genteel adventurers should be made an example of, and your offense just comes in time to make the cup of public and private forbearance overflow. My father and self have pledged our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor to see the thing through with Gurney and Perry, as the credit of our house is involved and we might ourselves have been losers, not only from you but from the aforesaid G. and P., who have been heard to go about openly declaring that 'if they had known the party was going to be that kind of an affair, d---d if they would not have started off earlier themselves with some of those aristocratic James overcoats, hats, gloves and canes!'

So let me as a friend advise you to send the swag back. No questions will be asked--Mum's the word.


[*Ephraim W. Gurney and T.S. Perry.]

[The next four letters may be taken from the late 'seventies and early 'eighties--after James had become absorbed in teaching and while he was at work upon his Psychology and upon his first philosophic papers. It should be explained with reference to two of them, that he then considered Charles Renouvier and Shadworth Hodgson to be the most important contributors to contemporary philosophic discussion. They were both somewhat older men than himself, Renouvier being, in fact, twenty-seven years older, and Hodgson his senior by ten years. He had exchanged letters with Renouvier as early as 1872. In 1881-82 he met and became warmly attached to both men during a winter that he then spent in visiting European universities and in making the acquaintance of a number of the British and Continental colleagues whose writings had interested him.

Before he made this particular European trip James had undoubtedly been in a very modest frame of mind about his own equipment for teaching philosophy and psychology, and had also been uncomfortably conscious of the inadequate way in which those subjects were then dealt with in most American colleges. But closer contact with men and methods on the other side of the Atlantic, far from discouraging him or confirming his misgivings, led him, as will appear in the next letter but one, to certain comforting conclusions and confirmed him in his fondness for the liberal atmosphere of Cambridge, and for his place in the brilliant little group who were then building up the Harvard philosophical department.]

To Charles Renouvier

CAMBRIDGE, July 29, 1876.


I am quite overcome by your appreciation of my poor little article in the Nation. It gratifies me extremely to hear from your own lips that my apprehension of your thoughts is accurate. In so despicably brief a space as that which a newspaper affords, I could hardly hope to attain any other quality than that, and perhaps clearness. I had written another paragraph of pure eulogy of your powers which the editor suppressed, to my great regret, for want of room. I need not repeat to you again how grateful I feel to you for all I have learned from your admirable writings.

I do what lies in my feeble power to assist the propagation of your works here; but STUDENTS of philosophy are rare here as everywhere. It astonishes me nevertheless that you have had to wait so long for general recognition. Only a few months ago I had the pleasure of introducing to your Essais two professors of philosophy, able and learned men, who hardly knew your name!! But I am perfectly convinced that it is a mere affair of time, and that you will take your place in the general History of Speculation as the classical and finished representative of the tendency which was begun by Hume, and to which writers before you had made only fragmentary contributions, whilst you have fused the whole matter into a solid, elegant and definitive system, perfectly consistent, and capable, by reason of its moral vitality, of becoming popular, so far as that is permitted to philosophic systems. After your Essays, it seems to me that the only important question is the deepest one of all, the one between the principle of contradiction, and the Sein und Nichts.* You have brought it to that clear issue; and extremely as I value your logical attitude, it would be uncandid of me (after what I have said) not to confess that there are certain psychological and moral facts, which make me, as I stand to-day, unable wholly to commit myself to your position, to burn my ships behind me, and proclaim the belief in the ONE and the many to be the Original Sin of the mind.

I long for leisure to study up these questions. I have been teaching anatomy and physiology in Harvard College here. Next year, I add a course of physiological psychology, using, for certain practical reasons, Spencer's Psychology textbook. My health is not strong, I find that laboratory work and study too are more than I can attend to. It is therefore not impossible that I may in 1877-8 be transferred to the philosophical department, in which there is likely to be a vacancy. If so, you may depend upon it that the name of Renouvier will be as familiar as that of Descartes to the Bachelors of Arts who leave these walls. Believe me with the greatest respect and gratitude,

Faithfully yours,


I must add a vivat to your Critique Philosophique, which keeps up so ably and bravely. And although it is probably an entirely superfluous recommendation, I cannot refrain from calling your attention to the most robust of English philosophic writers, Hodgson, whose Time and Space was published in 1865 by Longmans, and whose Theory of Practice in two volumes followed it in 1870.

[*Being and non-being.]

To Henry James

PARIS, Nov. 22, 1882.

DEAR H.,--

Found at Hottinguer's this A.M. your letter with all the enclosures--and a wail you had sent to Berlin. Also six letters from my wife and seven or eight others, not counting papers and magazines. I will mail you back yours and Father's letter to me. Alice speaks of Father's indubitable improvement in strength, but our sister Alice apparently is somewhat run down. Paris looks delicious. I shall try to get settled as soon as possible, and meanwhile feel as if the confusion of life was recommencing. I saw in Germany all the men I cared to see and talked with most of them. With three or four I had a really nutritious time. The trip has amply paid for itself. I found 3rd class 'Nichtraucher' almost always empty and perfectly comfortable. The great use of such experiences is less the definite information you gain from any one, than a sort of solidification of your own foothold on life. Nowhere did I see a university which seems to do for ALL its students anything like what Harvard does. Our methods throughout are better. It is only in the select 'Seminaria' (private classes) that a few German students, making researches with the professor, gain something from him personally which his genius alone can give. I certainly got a most distinct impression of my own INFORMATION in regard to MODERN philosophic matters being broader than that of any one I met, and of our Harvard post of observation being more cosmopolitan. Delboeuf in Liege was an angel and much the best teacher I've seen.

The Century, with your fiery good portrait, etc., was at Hottinguer's this A.M., sent by my wife. I shall read it presently. I'm off now to see if I can get your leather trunk, sent front London, arrested by inundations and ordered to be returned to Paris. I never needed its contents a second. And in your little American valise, and my flabby black hand-bag and shawl-straps and a small satchel, I carried not only everything I used, but collected a whole library of books in Leipsig, some pieces of Venetian glass in their balky bolsters of seaweed, a quart bottle of eau de Cologne, and a lot of other acquisitions. I feel remarkably tough now and fairly ravenous for my psychologic work. Address Hottinguer's.

W. J.

To Shadworth Hodgson

NEWPORT, Dec. 30, 1885.


I have just read your 'Philosophy and Experience' address, and re-read with much care your 'Dialogue on Free Will' in the last Mind. I thank you kindly for the address. But is n't philosophy a sad mistress, estranging the more intimately those who in all other respects are most intimately united--although 't is true she unites them afresh by their very estrangement! I feel for the first time now, after these readings, as if I might be catching sight of your foundations. Always hitherto has there been something elusive, a sense that what I caught could not be all. Now I feel as if it might be all, and yet for me 't is not enough. Your 'method' (which surely after this needs no additional expository touch) I seem at last to understand, but it shrinks in the understanding....

As for the Free Will article, I have very little to say; for it leaves entirely untouched what seems to me the only living issue involved. The paper is an exquisite piece of literary goldsmith's work,--nothing like it in that respect since Berkeley,--but it hangs in the air of speculation and touches not the earth of life, and the beautiful distinctions it keeps making gratify only the understanding which has no end in view but to exercise its eyes by the way. The distinctions between vis impressa and vis insita, and compulsion and 'reaction' MEAN nothing in a monistic world; and any world is a monism in which the parts to come are, as they are in your world, absolutely involved and presupposed in the parts that are already given. Were such a monism a palpable optimism, no man would be so foolish as to care whether it was predetermined or not, or to ask whether he was or was not what you call a 'real agent.' He would acquiesce in the flow and drift of things of which he found himself a part, and rejoice that it was such a whole. The question of free will owes its entire being to a difficulty you disdain to notice, namely that we CANNOT rejoice in such a whole, for it is NOT a palpable optimism and yet, if it be predetermined, we MUST TREAT it as a whole. Indeterminism is the only way to BREAK the world into good parts and into bad, and to stand by the former as against the latter.

I can understand the determinism of the mere mechanical intellect which will not hear of a moral dimension to existence. I can understand that of mystical monism, shutting its eyes on the concretes of life for the sake of its abstract rupture. I can understand that of mental defeat and despair saying, 'It's all a muddle, and here I go, along with it.' I can NOT understand a determinism like yours, which rejoices in clearness and distinctions, and which is at the same time alive to moral ones--unless it be that the latter are purely speculative for it, and have little to do with its real feeling of the way life is made up.

For life IS evil. Two souls are in my breast; I see the better, and in the very act of seeing it I do the worse. To say that the molecules of the nebula implied this and SHALL HAVE IMPLIED IT to all eternity, so often as it recurs, is to condemn me to that 'dilemma' of pessimism or subjectivism of which I once wrote, and which seems to have so little urgency to you, and to which all talk about abstractions erected into entities, and compulsion vs. 'freedom' is simply irrelevant. What living man cares for such niceties when the real problem stares him in the face, of how practically to meet a world foredone, with no possibilities left in it?

What a mockery then seems your distinction between determination and compulsion, between passivity and an 'activity' every minutest feature of which is preappointed, both as to its whatness and as to its thatness, by what went before? What an insignificant difference then the difference between 'impediments from within' and 'impediments from without'--between being fated to do the thing WILLINGLY or not! The point is not as to how it is done, but as to its being done at all. It seems a wrong complement to the rest of life, which rest of life (according to your precious 'free-will determinism,' as to any other fatalism), whilst shrieking aloud at its WHATNESS, nevertheless exacts rigorously its THATNESS then and there. Is that a reasonable world from the moral point of view? And is it made more reasonable by the fact that when I brought about the THATNESS of the evil WHATNESS decreed to come by the thatness of all else beside, I did so consentingly and aware of no 'impediments outside of my own nature'? With what can I SIDE in such a world as this? this monstrous indifferentism which brings forth everything eodum jure? Our nature demands something OBJECTIVE to take sides with. If the world is a Unit of this sort there ARE no sides--there's the moral rub! And you don't see it!

Ah, Hodgson! Hodgson mio! from whom I hoped so much! Most spirited, most clean, most thoroughbred of philosophers! Perche di tanto inganni i figlii tuoi? If you want to reconcile us rationally to Determinism, write a Theodicy, reconcile us to Evil, but don't talk of the distinction between impediments from within and without when the within and the without of which you speak are both within that WHOLE which is the only real agent in your philosophy. There is no such superstition as the idolatry of the Whole.

I originally finished this letter on sheet number one; but it occurred to me afterwards that the end was too short, so I scratched out the first lines of the crossed writing, and refer you now to what follows them.--[Lines from sheet number 1] It makes me sick at heart, this discord among the only men who ought to agree. I am the more sick this moment as I must write to your ancient foe (at least the stimulus to an old Mind article of yours), One F. E. Abbot, who recently gave me his little book Scientific Theism--the burden of his life--which makes me groan that I cannot digest a word of it. Farewell! Heaven bless you all the same, and enable you to forgive me. We are well and I hope you are the same.

Ever faithfully yours,


[From the final sheet.] Let me add a wish for a happy New Year and the expression of my undying regard. You are tenfold more precious to me now that I have braved you thus! Adieu!

[Professor Carl Stumpf of Prague and later of Berlin, to whom the following letter was addressed, will be recognized by all readers of psychology. James had met both him and Professor Wundt in 1881-82, had established the most cordial relations with Stumpf, and always cherished a warm regard for him.]

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